The Hangry Kid (and Adult)

Hangry, has become a very popular term for anyone who spends time with children or younger adults.  The term was coined in 1992 by Rebecca Camu in her short story A Splinter of Glass.  To be hangry, means to be both hungry and angry, the latter presumably caused by the former.  Unlike other emotional states such as sadness, moodiness, or fatigue, hangriness can be reliably remedied in an instant – by food intake, or more specifically, with sugar.
Although most people describe hangriness as a rather innocent state of being, the term has a much more meaningful and possibly ominous sign to those of us in the weight loss field.  If you drill down far enough, it becomes apparent that being hungry and being hangry, are two very different states of being.
In a typical case, feeling hangry might begin roughly 3 to 4 hours after eating a meal.  Although similar in some ways to hunger, in that immediate food is desired, it differs in some very important respects.  With pure hunger you feel uncomfortable and feel a more medium term need to acquire the next meal.  Although not comfortable, it does not get in the way of completing a task and a person’s mood is not significantly altered.
Hanger, is different.  It is a feeling of hunger, yes, but with an immediate need to consume calories now, or else!  People may have other symptoms such as headache, lightheadedness, tremulousness and other not so comfortable symptoms – symptoms not associated with pure hunger by itself.  All of these symptoms, again, are immediately relieved with food intake, especially food with a degree of sugar.

Why do some people experience pure, “normal” hunger and others get hangry?

When you are hungry, you are not comfortable, but you have energy that you can and do use.   Fat stores around the belly or from any other part of the body can quickly release energy sources for immediate use.  You are able to continue completing whatever task you were working without feeling as if the world might come to an end in a matter of minutes.  By contrast, for the hangry person, energy stores from fat cells cannot be readily accessed.  So when circulating blood energy stores in the form of glucose have been exhausted, which will take 4 hours or so, the body, and brain in particular go into a state of high alert since the tank is on empty and fuel is needed right away.  People tend to find some type of sugary food, blood energy is restored, and the problem is aborted.
This all begs the question as to why hangry kids and adults cannot mobilize energy stores from their fat cells as they once could. To be clear, the exact reason cannot be fully explained. However, it is seen almost exclusively in people who eat in a certain way – ultraprocessed foods with high sugar content. In a way, all of the processed nutrients, which we can understand better as plain sugar, alters our fat cells. After some time, fat cells become like a subway turnstile – energy can get in, but it cannot get released back out into the bloodstream. So when hanger hits, the only way to relieve the situation is to eat right away and replenish depleted energy stores.
As our food preferences and habits have changed over the years, snacking patterns have also changed.  Schoolchildren are more likely to have dedicated snack times to deal with their predictable, upcoming hanger.  These short term measures work only to worsen the problem, setting up the body to develop an even greater propensity for future hanger.
Long term, kids who are prone to having hanger likely are set ups for future obesity, diabetes, heart disease and liver problems.  This is why, as weight loss specialists we spend some time trying to know who does and does not experience hanger.
Fortunately, the answer is fairly simple – those who feel hanger need to return to eating foods that are not ultra processed and sugary.  For whatever reason, this seems to restore the fat cells’ ability to allow energy to flow in and out.   As part of the correction, for starters, ultraprocessed foods such as nonfast yogurts, cereals, poptarts, pastries, non-fast milk, should be out, as these are high sugar content foods.  Our food choices need to look more like old fashioned food.  This would be home cooked, made in the kitchen, which in a nutshell would be whole foods