The 'hangry' struggle is real and here's what you can do about it

Dec 16, 2015 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Image: Ghislain & Marie David De Lossy/Digital Vision/Getty Images

People who are always on diets aren't just a drag to take to restaurants because they refuse to split all of the decadent dishes you want to try, they're also more likely to snap at a moment's notice and give you major 'tude for simply asking whether they're ready to leave the house yet.

Try and be understanding. As it turns out, a lack of calories and sufficient nutrients can not only wreak havoc on the body, but also seriously affect the psyche and mood. If you aren't willing to give your system the healthy food it craves to function normally, you can't expect it to sit back and carry on with its everyday duties. At some point, it's going to rebel and turn you into the ultimate crab.

"The reason that we 'feel' a particular way (such as hunger, moody, lack of focus, etc.) is because of changes in our underlying biochemistry such as cortisol (stress hormone), blood glucose, neurotransmitters (such as serotonin involved in mood, norepinephrine involved in focus, and dopamine involved in happiness)," says Dr. Shawn M. Talbott, a nutritional biochemist and author. "Biochemistry drives our behavior in lots of different ways."

Talbott says specific changes in our body that can have a direct effect on hunger and the way we react to it include: 

High cortisol levels — Ever notice how your tummy seems to growl more when you haven't slept well? Our bodies create more cortisol when we're tired or stressed, which Talbott says sends signals to the brain that stimulate carbohydrate cravings.

Fluctuating blood sugar levels — Reaching for a quick fix, like a candy bar, may make us feel good for a few minutes, but the drop in glucose after the sugar high wears off will only stimulate our brain and send us on a quest for more "fast calories," like those found in chips and sweet treats.

More: 6 Foods to cut from your diet for significantly better health

"Both cortisol and glucose can interfere with neurotransmitter function, so aside from their 'direct' simulation of hunger in the brain, they also lead to various forms of mood disruption that can range from fatigue to brain fog to irritability, (e.g., being hungry + angry = hangry, is very much due to changes in all of this biochemistry)," Talbott says. "But we can easily 'fix' it all with the right foods."

Interestingly, there is a perfectly reasonable biological reason why we feel like we could destroy anyone and anything in our path when we crave a big meal — particularly after we've eaten a high-sugar, high-starch diet: Our bodies perceive hunger as an emergency because if blood sugar goes too low, it can kill you within minutes, says Dr. Georgia Ede, a psychiatrist and nutrition consultant.

"Adrenaline is our 'fight or flight' hormone designed to mobilize us in a crisis (such as seeing a saber-toothed tiger at the door of our cave)," Ede says. "But it also can cause very real panic symptoms in sensitive individuals. These people are often told that they have 'hypoglycemia,' when in reality, they are simply experiencing carbohydrate withdrawal. Food, but in particular sugar, will be all you can think about during times like this, because your brain believes you will literally die without it."

More: Which top-rated diets are unhealthy?

Ede says many people mistake actual hunger, which she says is uncommon, with the extremely common carb withdrawal, and that the crazy "hangry" phenomena is catching on like wildfire because so many of us are eating the wrong foods.

"The vast majority of us eat a diet that contains too much carbohydrates, particularly sugars and refined starches," Ede says. "In fact, women are even more likely to eat a high-carbohydrate diet because they tend to be more health and weight conscious, and dutifully follow the low-fat diet recommended by the USDA guidelines."

To combat the "hangries," Ede suggests following diets that are lower in sugar and refined starches, which will smooth out what she calls an "invisible roller coaster" and help you feel satisfied longer.

"True hunger is far less common, and feels quite different," Ede says. "True hunger is not a response to plummeting blood sugar, but to an actual need for nourishment, and does not cause the irritability and urgency that carbohydrate withdrawal does."

Could fewer carbs and more protein and veggies actually contribute to a kinder, gentler population of humans? It's certainly worth a try — pass the Brussels sprouts and grass-fed beef, please.