If you find yourself eating too much added sugar and unhealthy fats, it might be because you’re not getting enough sleep, according to a study published Monday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Researchers from Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center examined the associations between measures of sleep quality and the dietary patterns of nearly 500 women who participated in the AHA Go Red for Women program, a year-long study of sleep patterns and cardiovascular risk in women.
What they found was that the poorer their quality of sleep, and the less they slept, the more the women consumed added sugars, saturated fats and caffeine.
According to the researchers, the findings are important because women are at high risk for obesity and sleep disorders, which can both be driven by a high intake of food. Foods high in added sugars and unhealthy fats are also linked to health conditions and diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
“In our modern society, we oftentimes work late, we eat our meals late and sometimes sleep is kind of put by the wayside in terms of how important it is to our overall healthy lifestyle,” said Dr. Brooke Aggarwal, senior author of the study and assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“Our study really highlights the importance of good, quality sleep for the management of body weight as well as potentially preventing heart disease among women.”
Less sleep means more unhealthy food
Nearly 500 women between the ages of 20 and 76 were examined for their sleep patterns and the quality and quantity of their food intake.
Participants self-reported how they were sleeping and eating using questionnaires. They were asked how frequently each item was consumed over the past year in addition to how much they usually ate according to portion size guidelines.
Over a third of the women studied had poor sleep quality or some level of insomnia. Nearly 30% slept less than seven hours per night and nearly 25% slept less than seven hours per night but also struggled with insomnia. The average sleep time among all the women was less than seven hours.
Overall, women who didn’t sleep well or didn’t sleep enough consumed an additional 500 to 800 calories on average. They exceeded recommendations for total and saturated fat intakes, as well as added sugars and caffeine, but failed to meet recommendations for whole grains and fiber.
Younger women who experienced poor sleep quality also consumed lower levels of dairy. None of the sleep metrics were related to protein or carbohydrate intakes.
The connection between poor sleep and unhealthy diet
One reason that a lack of quality sleep might lead to overeating is because it’s believed to stimulate hunger, and/or suppress hormone signals that communicate fullness, the study said.
“It’s previously been shown that when we are sleep deprived, or we don’t get good quality sleep, our hormones can actually stimulate hunger,” Aggarwal said. “The ones that regulate suppression of hunger and fullness and satiety can be off balance.”
Levels of insomnia can influence the hippocampus, the region of your brain that regulates food intake. If intake of sugary and fatty foods leads to abnormal activity of the hippocampus, it might be harder to avoid cravings for unhealthy foods.
“We tend to make fewer rational decisions and instead make more impulsive, often emotion-driven decisions when we’re tired,” said Dr. Maya Adam, director of Health Education Outreach at Stanford University’s Center for Health Education.
Aggarwal said that women are at high risk for obesity and sleep disorders because of several different factors, including hormonal changes pre- and post-pregnancy.
Life stages such as child-rearing, menopause and caregiving to ailing spouses or family members can also cause the stress that may lead to overeating and sleep disturbances, Aggarwal said.
Another potential explanation for the connection between poor sleep and poor dietary habits, is that consuming too much food can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, which can make it harder to fall or remain asleep, the researchers said.
How to get better sleep
Aggarwal said that in attempting to get better sleep and eat healthier, it’s important to understand the link between sleep and diet, and how lack of the former can cause us to eat more than we should.
It’s also necessary to get to the bottom of why you’re having sleep problems, she said. You can start by talking to your doctor about sleep issues and the potential for cognitive behavioral therapy to help if you’re struggling with insomnia.
What also helps is practicing “good sleep hygiene,” Aggarwal said. This includes making sure your bedroom is dark and cool while you’re sleeping and that there are no extraneous lights around, such as blue light from a cell phone.
You can also develop a wind-down routine, which might include meditating, taking a bath or turning your phone off a little while before bed.
A healthier diet can improve your sleep, too. Since women with insomnia might be predisposed to consuming larger portions of food, one way to prevent consumption of excess calories would be to select lighter dishes. This would allow for the intake of larger food portions while still eating fewer calories and feeling satisfied, the report said.
“With both diet and sleep, simply taking a few days to track what your typical day is like may be enlightening,” said Dr. Deirdre Tobias, assistant professor of nutrition in Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“Many of us tend to believe we eat healthier and sleep more than we actually do. Take a personal inventory and see what areas can be readily improved on – like going to bed 30 minutes earlier and cutting back on highly processed snacks between meals.”
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Foods that are lower in calories but still satiating because of their fiber content or macronutrient levels include fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, lean meats, fatty fish and healthy fats.
“Sleep isn’t a luxury. It’s a fundamental human need and part of a healthy lifestyle,” said Adam. “By linking the quality of our sleep to something that is already high up on our list of priorities – the quality of our diet – this study highlights for the general public just how important it is to make time for quality sleep in our busy lives.”