Hanger Management – a 12 Step Recovery Program for when your hunger makes you angry

The word hangry – when you are so hungry that your lack of food causes you to become angry, frustrated or both – was recently added to Oxford Dictionaries. 

License to hanger – granted.

Truth be told, if you aren’t a toddler, hangry shouldn’t be a thing. As part of our physiology, we have a feedback system that controls our hunger and our weight. When that feedback system is well functioning, hunger feels sort of pleasant, and doesn’t make you want to murder anyone at all. 

So if your dining companions are scared of you, and business meetings feel like chambers of torture, then you want to arm yourself with a few facts about what’s going on underneath your hangry.

10 surprising facts about hunger

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True hunger happens in your head

Your hypothalamus to be precise. Which regulates the two key hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin.

When you get hungry, it’s because leptin levels have fallen. Then you eat a meal and leptin increases. Ghrelin follows the opposite pattern – levels increase prior to meals and decrease after.

Lifestyle factors can cause this delicate signaling system to go off kilter, making us feel more hungry.

Have you ever noticed your hunger increasing when you are stressed or have been eating a lot of high sugar foods such as fruit? These are two things that can induce leptin resistance – when your brain doesn’t get the signal to stop eating. 

Hunger isn’t the same as appetite

Some of us (maybe, sometimes) eat for reasons that aren’t to do with hunger. It’s shocking I know. 

I have written about this in depth here, but broadly, when we are ‘hungry’ we are in fact often bored, lonely, stressed or sad. 

Hunger is a primal biological drive associated with physical symptoms (think of that hollow feeling in your belly). Appetite is a psychological drive in which you desire a particular food and seek it.

Just a few of the things that affect appetite are stress, smoking, drinking coffee and falling in love. So if you want to lose weight, then do all four! I never said that.

Real hunger ebs and flows, gently like a stream – not violent like a stormy storm

It’s true. If you are eating right, your hunger levels should progress slowly and there will be no urgency about them.

You’ll understand this best if you choose not to eat for 24 hours, over the course of which you will feel very hungry, and then it will subside before hunger pangs return in an hour or two.

The more carbohydrates in your diet, the more hungry you will feel Click To Tweet

If you experience violent and sudden hunger pangs, it is indicative that you are on a blood sugar roller coaster (technically called glycemic volatility). This is observed in most overweight people.

Stabilize your blood sugar by reducing the amount of high GI foods (stands for glycemic index) in your diet, replacing them with more fiber and protein rich foods. The more carbohydrates in your diet, the more hungry you will feel. The more protein and fiber rich foods, the higher your feelings of satiety.

Leaving short intervals between feedings will make you hungrier (and hangrier)

This for me is one of the most annoying myths in nutrition.

Of course some of us do thrive from eating smaller meals more often. But the ideal that we need to do that to ‘keep the metabolism fired up’ is really outdated information, guys.

Ideally, we want to leave at least around 5 hours between mealtimes if we want our hunger hormones – ghrelin and leptin – to be supported.

If you want to eat more than that, then that’s cool. I recommend definitely leaving that gap for when your meal contains carbohydrate foods, and keeping your ‘in between’ foods protein and fat based (good choices are almonds, brazil nuts and avocados). 

Observing proper meal timing will help a lot to restore your hunger hormones. 

Exercise also makes you hungrier – but not in the way you think

People that train to eat often wind up doing ‘over compensatory eating‘. This is why exercising to lose weight doesn’t work (though it can help us to manage weight). 

The upshot? Don’t exercise to eat. You’re better off making your exercise contingent on something else, like a desire to be strong and fit looking. Here is a guide to exercising for optimal health and longevity. 

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If you let yourself get really hungry and don’t eat, nothing that bad is going to happen

This is actually great for your longevity and overall health – as everyone that has ever fasted will know.

Like lots of people, at intervals I will go a whole week without eating and never really experience hunger until the final day. A lot of hunger really is in the mind. 

Being sleep deprived messes up hunger signals more than anything

Yes, being sleep deprived is the worst news when it comes to hunger and hangry.

Research suggests we eat more to make up for the additional energy expenditure associated with being awake all night. Second, sleep deprivation appears to increase the sensitivity of the brain’s reward system to high-calorie foods.

It is possible to be both full and hungry 

Satiety levels are heavily influenced by nutrient density. If you feel hungry but you know you are eating enough calories (check here), then you might not be getting enough good nutrients in your food.

The body will register a lack of nutrients as hunger no matter how much food is eaten Click To Tweet

The body will register a lack of nutrients as hunger no matter how much food is eaten. By the way, many experts think that a lack of trace nutrients is a major reason for the American overeating and obesity epidemic.

The takeaway is that eating a nutrient dense diet, and even supplementing with a great product such as this, will affect hunger positively.

Getting cravings for certain foods doesn’t mean ‘your body needs it’

Food cravings happen for every reason under the sun, including genetics to emotions to the environment.

Mostly, cravings aren’t really a reliable or satisfactory way to decide what to quell your hunger with. They are too wild, unruly and irrational for that.

Restore the well functioning of your hunger hormones, and bring some awareness to cues in your environment and psychological triggers – then talk to me about your cravings.

You’re better off leaving your intellect out of it

The hunger system is comparable to the breathing system, in the sense that the brain has an unconscious mechanism that regulates it. So the intellectual, conscious mind isn’t really your friend when it comes to regulating hunger. 

What you can do is to set the general parameters and help your automatic systems to operate correctly. Do not avoid fat, do not eat excessive amounts of carbohydrate foods and do not micromanage by counting every calorie. 

12 steps to hanger freedom 

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To optimize your hunger hormones and otherwise set the stage for enjoying a pleasant relationship with hunger, do the following:

1. Get enough sleep for you (likely somewhere between 6-8 hours). Getting less than 7 hours of sleep has been associated with higher ghrelin levels, decreased leptin, increased hunger, and higher body weight in research studies.

2. Avoid stress. Stress is associated with higher body weight and ghrelin production, plus cravings for sugary fatty foods.

3. Practice mindful eating. Tune into your body and being mindful of when you are bored, lonely, or eating just because ‘its lunchtime’. Try measuring your hunger on a scale of 1-10 until you are used to eating at 8 or above.

4. Hydrate. 

5. Detox. If you feel like you have totally lost the plot with your hunger and satiety signals, then a detox could be useful. 

6. Minimize unnecessary carbohydrates in your diet. Carbohydrate foods, especially high GI ones, spike insulin levels, leading to a corresponding surge in leptin levels. You will experience a bottomless pit to your hunger or have uncontrollable cravings. If you aren’t sure how much carbohydrate food you need, then read this. 

7. Stop being such a snickety snacker. Leave 4-5 hours between mealtimes to optimize hunger hormones. Also try intermittent fasting – try eating all your food within an 8 hour period during the day and not eating for the next 16 hour period. 

8. Eat high fiber foods. Good choices are cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, chia seed, berries and beans.

9. Eat adequate protein (and fat). Protein is the most effective food group at lowering ghrelin. Good choices are eggs, wild fatty fish, grass-fed meat, hemp seed, chia and flaxseed. 

10. Increase your consumption of omega-3 fatty foods (and/or supplement). Eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids to boost leptin. Good choices are wild fatty fish and flaxseed (linseed). 

11. Maintain great gut health. There is little that keeping a healthy intestine doesn’t help with, and controlling appetite is no exception. Leptin and ghrelin imbalances have been observed in gut disorders like colitis. Eat probiotic-rich foods and use bone broth to help keep your gut (and brain) happy.

12. Just say no to being a jerk if you feel over hungry and there are people around. Nuff said.

Do people give you a wide berth when they know you are hungry? Get in touch in the comments below!