When it comes to improving your eating habits, do you consider sleep an important factor? Probably not. However, research indicates that getting enough sleep is foundational for maintaining healthy eating habits. And conventional wisdom says that about 1/3 of adults don’t get enough sleep. If you’re one of them, is lack of sleep negatively affecting your diet? It might be time to find out.
Lack of sleep hinders overall health
Sleep is crucial for health. Sleep is when your brain and body reset, grow, and repair. Research shows many associations between inadequate sleep and a variety of negative health impacts, including:
- Weight gain and obesity (in both adults and children)
- Cardiovascular disease, including hypertension and stroke
- Impaired immune function
Without enough restorative sleep, it’s also hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Over time, exhaustion mounts and it becomes harder to handle daily stresses, exercise, and eat right.
How much sleep do I need to support good health?
Experts recommend 7+ hours per night for adults, and 9 hours for teens. However, it’s not just how much sleep you get (and how late your regular bedtime is). The quality of your sleep relates to health, too. Disrupted sleep, or sleep that isn’t deep and restorative, has the same health consequences as not getting enough sleep.
What does sleep have to do with my diet?
There is increasing evidence that lack of sleep and poor-quality sleep correlate with increased food intake, decreased diet quality, and higher body weight. In general, we tend to compensate for too little sleep by eating more—and we’re not talking carrot sticks. There are a few proposed reasons for this:
- We are awake longer, giving us more time to eat.
- Lack of sleep influences our brain’s interpretation of rewards, increasing the appeal of food as a reward.
- We eat more to help keep our energy up when we are tired.
- Our appetite hormones change due to sleep deprivation. Our levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes us feel hungry, increase. And our levels of leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone, go down. This all translates to feeling physically hungrier.
- We’re more likely to make food choices based on palatability and less likely to consider nutritional content and dietary balance.
Does staying up later influence my food choices?
Yes, it increases the chances of a snack attack. A 2021 analysis of data from nearly 20,000 Americans showed a clear connection between sleep and snacking. Participants who did not meet sleep recommendations ate more snacks overall, compared to those who got more sleep. This meant they consumed more refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and fats from non-meal snack foods like cookies, chips, and candy. Skimping on sleep is also linked to craving higher-calorie foods, especially sweets. This all makes sense if you consider that when you stay up late, you most likely finished dinner hours ago. You may find yourself legitimately hungry, or you may just be hankering for a treat. Either way, it’s the perfect set-up for a night time snack fest. Nobody wants to prepare a full, balanced meal at 11:30 pm!
What can I do to get a better night’s sleep?
Making changes to increase your chance of getting adequate rest is a smart move. There are several things you can do to drift off to dreamland quicker:
- Practice good “sleep hygiene.” Make your sleeping area cool and dark, and avoid TV, computer, and phone screens for an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid going to bed within three hours of eating a meal.
- Have a cup of chamomile or other decaffeinated herbal tea in the evening. It’s relaxing and a good alternative to snacking.
- Eat a diet rich in sleep-related nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and tryptophan. (For more on the amino acid, tryptophan, check out this post.)