‘You need your sleep:’ BYU study suggests lack of sleep prompts poor eating habits

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Photo by Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

UTAH (ABC4) – We’re all familiar with the late-night junk food binge. Whether you’re up studying or working, returning home from a night out, or simply identify as a night owl, it’s common to reach for that bag of chips, candies, or cookies when you need a pick-me-up in the wee hours. But did you know that individuals who get less sleep may actually be prone to choosing less healthy foods?

According to Kara Duraccio, an assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University (BYU) who specializes in studying sleep, researchers have known for a long time that lack of sleep is associated with obesity. They just haven’t known exactly why, she says.

But, given the data in Duraccio’s recent study, there might now be some strong clues to help answer this question.

Over the course of five nights, Duraccio and a team of researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center compared the dietary habits of 93 adolescents. The teens were placed in two categories: those who were getting short sleep, defined as 6.5 hours, and those who were getting healthy sleep, defined as 9.5 hours. The study participants reported the type and amount of food consumed, along with the timing of their dining, to researchers.

After analyzing the data in terms of calorie count and nutrient properties within the selected foods, researchers were surprised with what they found.

According to Duraccio, the team had expected to find that teens getting less sleep would eat more. What they actually found though, was a little bit of a different story.

“We found that they were actually eating roughly the same amount of calories per day, but they were eating foods that were generally less healthy,” she says.

The team discovered that the teens who slept less consumed an extra 12 grams of sugar per day, which, if this rate was maintained, could result in an extra 4.5 pounds of sugar during the school year. This rate of consumption has grave implications for developing serious health problems, researchers say.

So why do individuals who sleep less tend to gravitate towards less nutritious options?

According to Duraccio, it’s somewhat like chasing a high.

“Our working hypothesis is that teens are going through the day and they’re tired so they’re seeking out foods that are going to give them quick bursts of energy to get through the day to the evening until they can get to bed,” Duraccio explains.

The study showed the majority of carb-heavy foods were consumed by participants later in the evening, after 9 p.m. She says while this dietary approach is effective for increasing energy in the short term, researchers are concerned this lifestyle choice has drastic connections to ongoing health risks like obesity and other cardio-metabolic diseases.

“The health behaviors that they develop in their teens are highly predictive of what they’re going to do as adults,” Duraccio says. “We know that adolescent obesity is highly predictive of adult obesity and poor sleep is highly predictive of poor sleep in adulthood.”

And teens are particularly apt to developing these types of unhealthy habits, Duraccio says.

With the obligations that come with high school courses, sports practices, other extracurriculars, and social engagements to top it all off, sleep is usually the first thing to go in a busy teen’s schedule.

“Teens are in this perfect storm of sleep problems, meaning they are in a developmental period of their life where they are overwhelmed with extracurriculars and homework, and other social obligations,” Duraccio says. “I think teens are especially prone to this and they are not quite as aware of the negative effects of poor sleep on their health that maybe adults are.”

Teens are also in a period of their life where their bodies are developing at a rapid pace, which creates a different circadian rhythm than the majority of the adult population. And according to Duraccio, society isn’t built around a teenage internal clock.

“Teens bodies physiologically aren’t tired until later in the evening. And while normally this wouldn’t be a huge deal, because teens could just sleep in the next day, we live in a nation that prioritizes early school start times for teens. We have teens who are going to bed at a time that maybe is more conducive to their internal clock, but they’re not allowed to sleep that full length of period and wake up at a time that’s conducive to that clock.”

Aside from exposing the ways our world isn’t designed for teens, the study also has many implications that shed light on our culture as a whole.

Duraccio specifically mentions the way our busy schedules prompt us to forgo sleep first, and how that is seen as socially acceptable – and often even a source of pride.

“I feel like sometimes we even wear it as a badge of honor,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, I only get five or six hours of sleep per night, and I can function great,’ or ‘I pulled an all-nighter last night to study for this test.’”

But what can we do to help develop healthier sleep habits for our teens – and as a culture?

Duraccio says it starts with doing “a lot of hard work with teens” to establish good sleeping habits and patterns, and then, it might need to become a wider cultural shift towards prioritizing sleep and recognizing the ways it impacts our overall health – not only in a physical and nutritional sense, but in a mental health context as well.

“I almost wish it was as negative of a reaction as if we were like: ‘Oh, I smoked four packs of cigarettes yesterday,’ Duraccio says of discussions regarding lack of sleep. “Anybody would recognize that that’s a negative health behavior. I want that to be the same with sleep, just being like: ‘Oh, that’s not okay. You need your sleep.’”

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