It’s a new year and many people are starting their annual diets. We all know that we are losing the battle to lose weight. Rates of obesity and diabetes continue to climb.
Simple advice is abundant:
- Eat less, exercise more
- Practice mindful eating, savor each bite
- Cut out the carbs
- Reduce fat
- Eat more plant-based foods
- And on and on
These simple strategies simply aren’t working. Why not? The problem isn’t so simple, after all.
Appetite, body fat, muscle mass, and weight are actually extraordinarily complicated things. They all revolve around what we call metabolism, which is influenced by much more than just what we eat or how much we move. Hormones, neurotransmitters, stress, the temperature of our environment, and countless other factors play a role. Sleep is a big one, and a study just published in the journal Sleep demonstrates how.
Researchers took 93 adolescents and assigned them to five nights of healthy sleep (9.5 hours of sleep) and a separate five nights of short sleep (6.5 hours of sleep). They also asked the participants to record what, when, and how much they ate under each sleep condition.
When sleep-deprived, the adolescents consumed more carbohydrates, added sugars, and sweet drinks, and they ate fewer fruits and vegetables. Differences in calories, fats, and carbohydrates were particularly prominent after 9 PM.
This research tells a story that many of us are familiar with. When we are stressed or tired, we tend to eat more at night, and we’re not eating fruits and vegetables. We’re eating junk food. It tastes good. It “comforts” us. We often do it while we are watching television. Although we all “know better,” when we are stressed or tired, we almost always lose the battle.
The story of why this happens is actually quite complicated. It involves many hormones, neurotransmitters, and brain-reward circuits. The good news, however, is that you don’t need to understand this complex story to do something, you can simply get more sleep.
If you’re struggling with your weight and find yourself going off your diet, especially at night in front of the television, here’s a simple solution: Go to Bed Instead. Prioritize your sleep over “relaxing” in front of the television. In reality, there’s no better way to relax than to get a good night’s sleep.
Kara McRae Duraccio, Catharine Whitacre, Kendra N Krietsch, Nanhua Zhang, Suzanne Summer, Morgan Price, Brian E Saelens, Dean W Beebe, Losing sleep by staying up late leads adolescents to consume more carbohydrates and a higher glycemic load, Sleep, 2021;, zsab269, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsab269
Author’s Note: This post was originally featured on Psychology Today.
Christopher M. Palmer, M.D., is a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher working at the interface of metabolism and mental health. He is the director of the Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education at McLean Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.