That uncomfortable feeling, the cross between hunger and anger, it’s “HANGER”! It can be triggered by low blood sugar in kids – and adults too. Here’s what you need to know – and how to keep that ‘hangry’ feeling at bay.
Do you have a “witching hour” at your house?
You know, that time every single day when your kids turn into grumpy little monsters that want to eat everything in sight…while you’re trying to make dinner?
At our house, it’s 4:30 pm. It’s like someone flips a switch. My toddler has just woken up from a nap. My older kids suddenly lose interest in what they’re doing, and they all want to run to the cupboard for snacks.
Then I realize I did it again. I forgot to have the kids make themselves a healthy snack. Now it’s almost dinner time, and I don’t want them snacking, but if they don’t eat now, we’ll have a big disaster of meltdowns and blood sugar crashes. And no amount of me saying, “dinner will be ready soon” will pacify them.
Yep – it’s “hangry” time.
Why Does my Child Get Angry When Hungry?
Rest assured, if this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Unfortunately, this point of getting angry due to hunger is very common in kids. It is unfortunate because it shouldn’t be common.
Getting angry when hungry, lovingly referred to as “hangry,” is a tell-tale sign of low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Our bodies are designed to handle dips and spikes of blood sugar. But they can only handle so much. And when they reach that tipping point, you get kids with unstable moods.
So, while you may think your child has an anger issue or is just moody, the real problem could go deeper. You have to get to the root cause in order to find the solution (my specialty)! And the root cause is often blood sugar imbalance.
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What is Blood Sugar?
So let’s start with the basics. What exactly is blood sugar?
Blood sugar is just what it sounds like. It’s the amount of sugar (known as glucose) in your blood at any given time. Glucose is a key source of energy for all cells in the body, along with protein and fatty acids.
The blood sugar level is controlled by your central nervous system (CNS) and is tightly regulated. If it goes too high or too low, the CNS triggers the release of hormones to increase or reduce blood glucose.
If blood sugar is too high, insulin is released to take glucose out of the blood and put it into your cells. It is first stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. If there is a big excess it is then stored as fat.
On the other end of the spectrum, if blood sugar is too low, glucagon is released to take the stored glucose in your body and put it back into your blood.
Either way, a state of homeostasis is the end result. This is what the body strives for at all times.
Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar in Kids
This balance of blood sugar is disrupted when we go too long without eating. While some adults can go long stretches, kids generally need to eat every few hours to keep blood sugar stable. Especially if they are active.
Some symptoms of low blood sugar in kids include:
- irritable or moody between meals (“hangry”)
- frequent crying or angry meltdowns
- consistently waking up in the night, especially between 1:00 and 3:00 am
- feeling shaky
- inability to focus
- craving sugar or starch
- extreme hunger
It’s easy to mistake any of these for something other than low blood sugar. So be conscious of watching for symptoms.
The other day my eleven-year-old told me she had a headache. I gave her some magnesium and put on some essential oil to help her relax. I was busy making lunch and didn’t think much of it. When we got to the table she mentioned how hungry she was. Wouldn’t you know it, after a good lunch her headache had vanished!
She hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. Whoops! It was a good reminder for both of us.
Avoiding a Blood Sugar Crash
The best solution to blood sugar imbalance for kids is eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet, and making sure they eat every few hours. Limiting or eliminating refined sugar is also an important step.
Balance is key when it comes to blood sugar. That means eating a balance of macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fat. As humans, we can create energy from all three types of macros. So it’s important that we don’t rely on just one.
Each macronutrient has a specific role in the body’s energy production.
Roles of Carbs, Fat and Protein in Blood Sugar Stability
Carbohydrates are like the kindling on a fire. They burn hot and quickly. This is great and necessary for quick energy.
But it doesn’t last.
If your child is eating a diet that is heavy on carbohydrates, he will likely be hungry often. Make sure the carbohydrates you choose are unrefined, complex carbohydrates. It is also important to consider fiber content.
Prebiotics will help feed the good bacteria in the colon and create a diverse microbiome. Examples of healthy carbohydrates include soaked, sprouted or fermented grains, fruits, vegetables, and raw dairy.
Fat is like the logs on a fire that burn slowly. It is essential that your child eats adequate nourishing fats to slow the absorption of the carbohydrates and to help utilize fat-soluble vitamins. Fat will also help keep your child full longer.
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Finally, protein is also a great source of both energy and building blocks for muscles, red blood cells, enzymes, and hormones. Healthy protein includes grass-fed and pastured meat, eggs, raw dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Eaten together, these macronutrients provide vitamins, minerals, building blocks, and energy. And of course stable blood glucose levels!
How Often Should Kids Eat?
A good rule of thumb for children is to eat about every three hours. Though every child is unique (make sure you figure out their Eating Style)!
An Intuitive Eater may need to eat more often as she tends to eat smaller meals. An Analytical Eater will tend to eat a lot at once and wait for the next meal to eat again. Watch for signs of low blood sugar and take note of how long it’s been since their last meal.
Also factor in what type of foods were eaten. A bowl of cereal at 7:00 am could leave a child “hangry” by 8:00! But scrambled eggs with sweet potato hashbrowns cooked in butter will keep him going for three or more hours.
As much as I don’t like snacking right before a meal, if it’s been more than three hours since my child has eaten and they are asking for food, I let them have a small, balanced snack like a few nuts and raisins to get them to the next meal without a blood sugar crash. It saves their body from a lot of unnecessary stress.
To avoid the pre-meal snacking, offer a balanced snack about two hours before a meal.
Simple Snacks to Keep Blood Sugar Stable
Snacks can take on many forms. And often they are not in the healthy category (think chips, cookies, ice cream, pretzels, etc.). Processed food is one of the biggest sources of inflammation in our bodies, and that is not what we want for our kids!
But let’s face it, we prepare three nourishing meals a day – we don’t always have the time or energy to prepare snacks too.
But there are simple snacks that meet the criteria of balancing protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates with fiber. Some you can prep ahead in big batches, some are more grab-and-go, and others the kids can make themselves!
Good snack options include:
- sourdough bread with sunbutter, peanut butter or almond butter
- whole grain crackers with raw cheese
- sprouted nuts or seeds with dried fruit
- raw vegetables with hummus and veggie dip
- yogurt with chia seeds and fruit
- hard-boiled egg and whole-grain crackers
- homemade lunch meat sticks and pear slices
- apple slices dipped in sunbutter or nut butter
- granola bar bowl
- no-cook banana custard
- homemade fruit snacks and pumpkin seeds
- homemade beef jerky and dates
- soaked teff crackers dipped in smashed avocado
- avocado pudding with nuts
- sweet and salty snack mix
- salmon salad on whole-grain crackers
Use the chart below to mix and match all three macros to create your own snack combinations!
Remember that portion size is important. A snack is not a full meal. They don’t have to be stuffed after a snack.
If your child tends to wake up in the night, a bedtime snack is essential. It should be heavy on fat and low on sugar to keep blood sugar stable through the night. Some kids also need breakfast as soon as they get up if they are actively dealing with blood sugar imbalance. Keep easy-to-grab breakfasts on hand for these occasions.
Can Kids Have High Blood Sugar?
Our bodies are designed to handle dips in blood sugar and slight rises after a meal. We have wonderful mechanisms in place to get levels back up or to bring them back down after eating.
However, this is the first time in human history that we have had a need to lower consistently high blood sugar. Thanks to processed foods, toxins, and stress, most people, kids included, are dealing with high blood sugar on a regular basis.
The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
If a child is eating processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugar, especially without the balance of healthy protein and fat, this causes the CNS to produce insulin. The insulin pulls the excess sugar from the blood and puts it into storage.
Since this must be done rapidly to get the high amount of glucose out of the blood quickly, too much glucose is pulled, causing a swing the other direction – low blood sugar. This is the hyperactivity and then crash that kids experience after eating a lot of sweets.
Then the CNS has to go back the other way to quickly get glucose back into the blood. Backup is called, putting strain on the adrenal glands, and your child is now in the “fight-or-flight” mode.
And we are now back to a low blood sugar, low energy, “hangry” child craving sweets and carbohydrates. If he fulfills his body’s cry for energy with sweets, the process starts all over again with spikes and dips in blood sugar.
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Long Term Effects of Blood Sugar Imbalance
Our cells can only handle so much of this drastic up and down. If this process continues, generating insulin to pull glucose out of the blood, the cells close their doors and become resistant to insulin’s knocking. Now we are left with a dangerous situation where the body produces more and more insulin but the cells have tuned out.
At first, it’s just compromised blood sugar regulation. But if this cycle continues it can lead to the following:
- Hyperinsulinemia and reactive hypoglycemia
- Insulin resistance
- Metabolic syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
As you can see, keeping blood sugar balanced is so important for your child’s health. Eating nutrient-dense meals and balanced snacks is key.
It’s ok to have a sweet treat here and there, but try not to make it a regular habit, and make sure it is eaten with some healthy fat and protein to slow the absorption of the sugar. If your child eats a cookie, give him some cheese or nuts too.
What Else Causes Anger in Kids?
As I said at the beginning, “hanger” is often caused by low blood sugar. But there are other reasons your child could be dealing with anger or mood issues.
Stress and Anger in Kids
Stress can come in many forms such as:
- processed foods
- heavy metals
- environmental toxins
- lack of sleep
- lack of exercise
- lack of sun
- spinal misalignment
- lack of food (leading to low blood sugar)
Stress depletes essential nutrients and calls on backup systems of the body. This uses extra energy. And where do we get more energy? Food! A balanced, nourishing diet is so important.
Food Sensitivities and Mood Regulation
If your child is struggling with mood and behavior, also consider that she may be reacting to certain foods. Even healthy foods can cause stress on the body if they are not tolerated.
Hidden food reactions have more than 80 symptoms! So be vigilant and observe what your child is eating when the anger arises.
My eight-year-old has been dealing with mood issues since he was very little. We learned through trial and error and testing that he reacts to a lot of foods. Some are true IgE allergies and some are just sensitivities, but they both impact his emotions the same way.
If he consumes wheat, dairy, or nuts he is like a ticking time bomb. The littlest thing can set him off and cause explosive behavior. Sugar does it as well. So we try our best to avoid refined sugar. Natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup do not have the same effect, especially when consumed with fat and protein.
Vitamins That Impact Mood Balance
Finally, I want to mention that vitamin and mineral deficiencies and imbalances can also have a big impact on mood. You can work with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner to assess what critical nutrients could be missing. Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis is another great tool to pinpoint imbalances.
I am suspecting a deficiency in some of the B vitamins for my son right now. Blood sugar imbalance depletes B vitamins. So we’re actively adding whole food sources to his diet to see if it will help, in conjunction with his allergen-free and refined sugar-free diet.
His body needs some time free of these stressors to rest and heal. Plus he is my Active Eater that tends to get low blood sugar very easily. So I have to be diligent with snack time too. It’s work, but it makes for a much more peaceful house!
If you want to avoid having “hangry” kids, give them small, balanced snacks between meals. Keeping blood sugar levels stable will go a long way in maintaining a happy mood and clear thinking.