Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, yet about 35% of Americans routinely miss the mark. Unfortunately, if you’re not sleeping well, it may be harder to eat well. Here’s how sleep influences your eating habits, plus science-backed ways to get more rest so you can nourish your body better.
It may help you control your added sugar intake
Got a sweet tooth? Getting adequate sleep may help. A 2018 study looked at the impact of extra shut-eye on eating habits, recruiting healthy people who chronically slept between five to seven hours per night. One group was randomized to receive a 45-minute counseling session with information about sleep recommendations and simple strategies to help them sleep more.
While no one received dietary counseling, those who received the sleep advice lowered their added sugar intake by 10 grams per day, even though they didn’t hit the recommended sleep target of seven to nine hours per night. So, even with slightly more sleep (but less than advised), their diet quality significantly improved. For the record, 10 grams of sugar is the equivalent of 2 ½ teaspoons, which is more than what you’d get in a fun-size Snickers bar.
It could make you less vulnerable to cravings
If you’re not sleeping well, it will be harder to manage cravings. Using MRI machines to detect brain activation, researchers found that after a short night of sleep, people who looked at images of unhealthy food, such as doughnuts and candy, experienced increased activity in areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. Meanwhile, the same brain hot spots showed a significantly weaker response to healthy food.
It comes down to this: When you’re sleep deprived, it alters the way your brain sees food, so you’re going to have a stronger calling for sweets and snacks, making it harder to feel in control around them.
It alters your perception of healthier foods
A 2021 study found that after a night of sleep deprivation, participants’ ratings of healthier, lower-calorie foods declined compared to their ratings after sufficient sleep. Still, participants didn’t reduce their consumption of these foods, but they did increase the amount of high-calorie foods they ate. Plus, based on tracking eye movements, researchers concluded that participants felt less of a conflict choosing unhealthy fare when they were sleep deprived. In other words, it was easier for them to make a less healthy choice.
It contributes to overeating
When you get inadequate sleep, you feel hungrier, thanks to the rise in the hormone ghrelin. Plus, it’ll take longer to feel full because of lower leptin levels. Unsurprisingly, this could lead to serving yourself bigger portion sizes, as was found in a 2019 study among women who usually slept seven to nine hours per night after they were instructed to get a third less sleep. After limiting their sleep, women reported feeling hungrier and having increased cravings the next day. What’s more, when they visited the lab for lunch the next day, they helped themselves to bigger portions, serving themselves 12.4% more calories, despite having eaten the same amount before lunch as they had after sleeping well.
It may help you manage your weight
Earlier studies found that inadequate sleep could contribute to weight gain because of its impact on hunger hormones and your perception of healthy and unhealthy foods. These factors can promote overeating, putting you in a calorie surplus and contributing to weight gain. A 2022 study examined how extra sleep would influence the calorie intake of adults who chronically slept under 6 ½ hours per night. One group was randomized to receive sleep hygiene counseling to extend their sleep to a healthy 8 ½ hours per night.
The impact of extra sleep was dramatic. Those who received counseling increased their sleep by about 1.2 hours, and they reduced their daily calorie intake by 270 calories. Using a body weight simulator, the researchers predicted that, if continued, the impact of extra sleep alone could result in a 26-pound weight loss over three years. Bear in mind that participants didn’t receive dietary counseling, and the study was carried out at home — not in a lab. So, those who got more sleep naturally curtailed their calorie intake.
9 expert tips for better sleep
If you’re routinely sleeping under seven hours per night, these tips can help nudge you toward the recommendations, which will also help you eat better.
- Don’t go to bed too hungry or too full. It’s especially problematic if you eat a big meal close to bedtime, even more so if you have GERD. Ideally, allow at least two hours between your last morsel and bedtime. If you’re too hungry to sleep, have a light snack.
- Cut down on caffeine after midday. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it takes longer to clear your system than you might think. The average time is about five hours, but it can take double the time for some people.
- Stay within healthy drinking limits. Those limits are one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. While alcohol makes you sleepy at first, it causes other disruptions that ultimately reduce your quality of sleep.
- Get outside daily. Sunlight helps regulate your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells you when to wake up and when it’s time to go to bed.
- Participate in activity most days. Getting regular exercise is beneficial for sleep. And your workouts don’t have to be strenuous to count toward this goal.
- Keep your bedroom primed for sleep. It should be cool, dark, comfortable and quiet.
- Reduce your use of electronics at night. Plug your phone in across the room to limit the temptation to scroll.
- Be consistent with bedtimes and wake times. To extend the time you spend asleep, try going to bed 30 minutes earlier and waking up 30 minutes later.
- Participate in relaxing rituals. This could include deep breathing, mediation, and journaling. The goal is to get your brain and body ready for bed.