The Weird Reasons the Pandemic Could Be Making You Feel Hangry

Plus, what experts say you should do about it.

woman stress eating
Photo: Getty / Martin Novak

With our schedules and routines upended by the coronavirus pandemic, it's no surprise our eating habits have become just as chaotic as our new daily grind. So much so, you might find yourself experiencing a level of hanger you never thought possible, better known as "panger," or pandemic-induced hanger.

What makes panger more intense than your garden-variety hanger? "Hanger is a grouchiness that's associated with not consuming enough food (that typically goes away once you've eaten something), while panger is a general dissatisfaction with food as a result of never feeling hungry, yet never feeling full," says Matt Johnson, Ph.D., a California-based psychology professor and author of Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains.

The reaction stems from our penchant for snacking on the fly (as opposed to eating consistent meals) now that our schedules are out of whack.

Why You're Always Hungry

Between working from home, home-schooling the kids and disinfecting every surface incessantly, our lives aren't as segmented as they used to be. This can lead to a distorted sense of time that not only makes sticking to our usual eating rhythms almost impossible, but the lack of demarcations leaves us without concrete cues for when to eat meals and snacks.

Being home all the time can also increase the psychological burden of clean up—that feeling that we're always doing dishes. "When we feel this way, we're more likely to grab handfuls of snacks (crackers, cookies, easy small bits) because cooking from scratch entails more dishes," says Nashville-based registered dietitian Grace Goodwin Dwyer, RD.

Then there's the boredom factor: "Even when we're not hungry, food provides stimulation and a break from the monotony of the day," says Johnson. "Our fridge isn't just a source of food now, but our go-to source of excitement."

It's easy for this grazing behavior to become part of a habitual loop. Since being bored is a sucky feeling we'd rather not be experiencing, we may learn to alleviate it by heading to the fridge and getting a snack.

"Boredom is the itch and snacking is the scratch," says Johnson. "Once this happens a few times, we learn this association to the point where it's muscle memory—every time we feel bored, we automatically head to the fridge."

How Grazing Can Lead to Feeling "Pangry"

Feeling pangry is like being stuck in food purgatory—you're never quite hungry and you're never quite full, which means you're generally dissatisfied with food most of the time. "Being stuck in this loop can be an emotionally draining experience," says Johnson. "Our stomachs aren't grumbling, but our hearts and minds are."

Perma-grazing leads to blood sugar instability, a rollercoaster of highs and lows usually triggered by eating quick-fix snacks that are nutritionally incomplete (higher in carbs and lower in protein, fibermand healthy fats).

Incomplete snacks cause a blood sugar spike and boost of energy, followed by a fast drop in blood sugar (cue mood swings). "It's this sharp drop that leads us to cravings, so that we can have more quick energy to restore our blood sugar back towards normal, then the cycle repeats itself," says Dwyer.

And with the stress of the pandemic, we tend to gravitate toward snack foods—specifically, those high in sugar—for a quick burst of pleasure and comfort, both of which we need right now, she adds.

Unfortunately, the warm-and-fuzzy feelings are short-lived, changing our relationship with food for the worse. "Instead of enjoying food for its taste, nutrition, and texture, it's now a boredom fix," says Johnson. "Since food can be a huge source of enjoyment, being robbed of this through 'pangriness' can bring down our overall mood and wellbeing."

How to Practice Intuitive Eating During the COVID-19 Pandemic

To start turning things around, it's important to acknowledge that we do have heightened emotions right now that may manifest in the foods we're craving and the eating habits we're using to cope. (Read more on why you crave carbs when you're stressed.)

"It's not a long-term problem if that results in some extra snacking we wouldn't usually do, but we want to also be addressing the root causes of negative emotions, so that food isn't our only coping mechanism," says Dwyer.

Intuitive eating, or listening to your body's hunger and fullness cues (among other things), can help kick panger to the curb. Here's how:

Create contextual associations.

"Context is the environment we surround ourselves in (think: home, office and gym in the pre-COVID days)," says Johnson. "Associations are what we do, given that specific environment (unwind at home, work hard at the office, exercise at the gym)."

In the case of panger, we associate hunger with boredom, so it stands to reason that in order to diffuse this reaction, we need to start associating hunger with neutral or positive feelings. For example, drinking water every time we feel the need to grab whatever's in the fridge, or being more deliberate with our meal and snack choices going forward.

"Protein is particularly helpful for feeling full, so I recommend eating some at every meal and snack to stay out of the not-hungry-yet-not-full state that can trigger panger," says Dwyer.

Make sure your breakfast always includes protein.

"This will help set you up for an entire day of balanced blood sugar—otherwise, your snack cravings may kick in by mid-morning," says Dwyer, who recommends at least 15 grams for adults at breakfast.

For example, 2 eggs with 2 slices of toast (18 grams), a 6-ounce container of greek yogurt with a handful of berries (18 grams) or oatmeal with almond butter and chia seeds (16 grams). Try out some of our favorite high-protein breakfast recipes.

Prepare batches of balanced snacks in advance.

"This can help set you up for a more intentional snack experience," says Dwyer. If you know you tend to get hungry at specific times, having balanced snacks ready (that contain protein, fiber and healthy fats, or at least two out of the three) when these times arrive—fruit and cheese cubes, edamame, homemade quesadillas and salsa—can help keep panger at bay.

Form healthier boredom fixes.

"Food is an easy go-to escape from boredom, but it doesn't have to be the only one," says Johnson. "Developing other healthy boredom fixes can be a key strategy to staying out of panger mode, like reading a new book or catching up with a friend." Or even easier breaks could be taking a stretch break or going for a walk around the block.

Just make sure you enjoy the potential boredom fixes just as much or more than grazing to ensure it doesn't win out in the end.

Get to know your hunger. Embrace the opportunity to hone your intuitive eating instincts. Before and after eating, consider what your "hunger" feels like. Is it a physical feeling? An emotional one? If it's the latter, can you identify what you may actually need if it's not food? (Distraction, connection, comfort?)

"For some people, it can be helpful to write this down in a journal-format to help encourage reflection, notice patterns, and adjust course," says Dwyer. And, hopefully, move past panger and toward enjoying food again.

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