Babies screaming, toddlers throwing tantrums—every parent and grandparent faces the infant meltdown on a regular basis, and has a mental checklist of what is most likely to be the cause. The two top items will be tiredness and hunger. The link between hunger and anger (hanger) goes way back. Although we may learn to manage it as we grow, for many of us it is always there in the background.
What Causes Hanger?
Some scientists believe that the root cause of hanger is back there in our evolution. When food is scarce the ones who are likely to survive are those who are ready to fight for their share, and anger makes for better fighting!
On a physiological level, what appears to be happening is that our brains need glucose to work effectively. Without the supply of glucose the brain doesn’t function so well and starts to cut corners by, among other things, disregarding the conventions of polite behavior.
The brain also instructs certain organs to produce hormones that will convert stored energy into glucose. One of those hormones is adrenalin, the “fight or flight” hormone. As that gets a boost so anger is a natural response.
What Happens When We Have a Craving?
Because hunger (and hanger) are such basic aspects of our nature, they cause some very strong reactions on a level over which we have little conscious control. One of those responses is to have cravings.
There are two types of hunger. There is the sort we have been looking at, where the glucose levels in the brain drop and it sends us out to find food. Then there is another sort, called hedonic hunger, where we want food because we like it.
A craving often happens when natural hunger is overtaken by hedonic hunger. We may not have noticed we were hungry because we were busy with something else, but when our minds turn to eating we form a mental image of some food that we find especially appealing. That image can then grow in tandem with the actual need for food and become overpowering.
How Can We Deal with Cravings?
There are two approaches to combating cravings. You can wait till they go away, or you can feed them. Feeding is fine if the craving is for something healthy, like an apple, but if it is for chocolate cake you might want to find a better solution. Often this is because foods we crave tend to be foods that provide a short-term boost to glucose (an important effect in some survival situations) but then a rapid descent into glucose deficit.
A solution might be to find a healthier version of what you are craving. For instance, if French fries are your thing, go for potato skins, or fries made from sweet potatoes which are generally healthier. If it is white bread with jelly you yearn for, take peanut butter on whole wheat bread. If you dream of ice cream, it may be the high fat content you crave, so substitute something with a healthier sort of fat, such as avocados.
Look to the Long Term
Better still, educate your body to look for the sort of foods that do not give that glucose kick, but instead release their energy over a longer period. At the same time, get your body to expect some discipline about when and where it eats, so that it is not constantly demanding snacks.
Natural foods win over processed foods every time in this battle. The paleo diet, for instance, has indicated many ways to control hunger through seeking out high (but slow release) energy foods that can often satisfy a craving. The secret is to go for foods that are low in carbs and sugar, but hard to eat in large quantities. There are some great websites full of suggestions, such as this from PaleoHacks.
Dried foods are very often the things to go for, because they are easy to carry around, difficult to overeat, and they pack a lot of taste and nutrition. Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and jerky are all excellent. So too, surprisingly, is dark chocolate.
Dealing with hanger and cravings is never an easy path. There will always be steps backwards as well as forwards. In the long run we must believe that we can get our brains and bodies to work in harmony, so that we can live with a diet and a lifestyle which is healthy, enjoyable, and socially acceptable.
Tom Hughes has worked as a dietitian for several years, re-training to help others after he himself went through a massive diet and health change.