We’ve all been there…
It’s been a long day of traveling and working – exhausted and mentally drained – you get home, walk into the kitchen, swing open the refrigerator doors, and voilà – find yourself snacking on the most accessible, no-prep food item within arms reach.
While this behavior may feel self-soothing, recent studies are finding that late-night snacking and junk food cravings contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors and can lead to poor sleep and obesity.
What does the research say?
In 2018, a nationwide, phone-based survey of 3,105 adults from 23 U.S. metropolitan conducted by the University of Arizona Health Sciences, participants were asked if late-night snacking was a regular activity and whether lack of sleep led them to crave junk food. Sleep quality and existing health problems were also evaluated. 60% of participants reported regular late-night snacking and two-thirds reported that lack of sleep led them to crave more junk food.
While past research has shown a connection between lack of sleep and obesity, researchers found that junk food cravings doubled in intensity in participants that reported a habit of late-night snacking. There could be a number of reasons for this increased junk food intensity because of late-night snacking – one being, eating greasy/high-caloric foods late in the evening can prevent you from getting high-quality sleep and can keep you up at night. Laboratory studies suggest that sleep deprivation can lead to junk food cravings during the day, which leads to increased unhealthy snacking at night, which then leads to weight gain. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps spinning until unhealthy behavior is changed.
A second study from researchers at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York looked at the brain activity of 25 healthy-weight volunteers after five nights of four hours of sleep and five nights of normal sleep. After sleep deprivation, the pleasure-seeking centers of the brain were activated more when participants looked at pictures of unhealthy food like pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, and cake. After several days of receiving quality sleep, however, both the healthy and unhealthy food images activated pleasure areas with the same level of activity.
Another study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, had 23 healthy adults rate their craving for 80 foods during a functional MRI scan. This rating procedure was repeated twice on each participant – the first after one night of normal sleep, and the second, after 24 hours of sleep deprivation. The results showed that lack of sleep dampened brain activity in areas involved in decision-making. Decision-making is key when choosing to follow a healthy diet of whole, unprocessed foods.
Time to Sleep!
Why are these studies significant? Because they show us how important sleep is in helping us make decisions about what foods we eat and when we should eat them. The bottom line is: Getting high-quality sleep each night will give you the willpower you need to avoid junk food, and it will help you find satisfaction in eating REAL, whole, unprocessed foods!
If you struggle with insomnia or other sleeping conditions, you should consult a primary care doctor to see if sleep supplements (Melatonin) would be a good treatment option for you.
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- University of Arizona Health Sciences: “Sleep loss linked to nighttime snacking, junk food cravings, obesity, diabetes.” www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180601171900.htm