Sleep and Snacking—What's the Connection?Published on Thursday, July 27, 2023 by
Lots of snack attacks sneaking up on you? Check your sleep schedule
Many of us aren’t getting adequate sleep—about 1 in 3 adults in the US report that they don’t get enough sleep. And if you have GERD or IBS, sleep can be even more elusive. Sleep is foundational to good health, and being short on snooze time is linked to chronic diseases. A lack of ZZZs can also impact your eating habits and may show up most noticeably in your snacking.
You may snack more overall—especially on sweets.
Staying up late to scroll social media or binge-watch your favorite show might be nudging you toward a very snacky eating pattern. A 2021 analysis of data from nearly 20,000 Americans showed that those who didn’t meet sleep recommendations ate more snacks than those who got more sleep. This wouldn’t be an issue really if those who are short on sleep chose things like fruit or salad to snack on, but the study indicates that higher-calorie, less nutritious snacks were consumed instead. So, in general, they were snacking on foods that contained more refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and fats from snacks such as cookies, chips, pretzels, pastries, and candy. These findings are backed up by previous research that sleep restriction (or deprivation) shifts our food preferences toward more energy-dense options.
Why does lack of sleep promote snack attacks?
There are a few proposed reasons for why we tend to reach for less-healthy treats when we are tired. Sleep deprivation appears to alter appetite-regulating hormones. Namely, ghrelin levels increase, and leptin levels decrease, resulting in increased hunger and desire to eat and more calories consumed. There is also a body of research that shows that skimping on sleep triggers the endocannabinoid system, which is one of the body’s hedonic pathways impacting food choice. In this case, we’re not talking about the infamous “munchies,” but the result is basically the same—it prompts us to choose the cookies or cinnamon rolls over the crudites.
Some scientists theorize that because our decision-making skills suffer under sleep deprivation, the issue might mostly focus on our inability to make smart choices. Interestingly, not all studies looking at sleep deprivation and food consumption document an increase in overall caloric intake. Yet, the types of foods consumed do tend to skew toward treat-type foods in the majority of these studies.
And finally, on the most practical level, the later you are awake, the more time you have to eat. In fact, you may actually begin to feel hungry at night—even if you had dinner. Most likely, you’re not going to fix yourself a healthy mini-meal when hunger strikes at 9:30 or 10 pm. Instead, you’ll reach for something easy and tasty, like processed snack foods and sugary treats. Not to mention, if you’re trying to stay awake long enough to finish that book you’re reading, the quick energy that sweets provide can be a factor, too.
Help yourself get more sleep.
Experts recommend that adults get 7+ hours of sleep per night consistently, while teens need more, about 9 hours. To increase your chances of restful sleep and adequate time in dreamland, follow these tips:
- Avoid going to bed within 3 hours of eating a meal
- Take a look at your pre-sleep routine and see if it needs adjusting
- Practice good “sleep hygiene”
Sleep tight, everyone!
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (2022, March 24). What are sleep deprivation and deficiency? National Institutes of Health.Retrieved June 22, 2023 from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation
- Chaput, J-P. (2014). Sleep patterns, diet quality and energy balance. Physiology and Behavior, 134, 86-91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2013.09.006
- Potosky, E., Taylor, C., Wexler, R., Pratt, K. (2021). Differences in snacking intakes by meeting sleep recommendations. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 121(9) Suppl., A52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2021.06.145
- Bhutani, S., Howard, J., Reynolds,R., Zee, P., Gottfried, J., Kahnt,T. (2019) Olfactory connectivity mediates sleep-dependent food choices in humans. eLife 8:e49053. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.49053
- Van Egmond, L., Meth, E., Engstrom, J., Ilemosoglou, M., Keller, J., Vogel, H., Benedict, C. (2023). Effects of acute sleep loss on leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin in adults with healthy weight and obesity: a laboratory study. Obesity, 31(3), 635-641. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.23616
- Hanlon, E. C., Tasali, E., Leproult, R., Stuhr, K. L., Doncheck, E., de Wit, H., Hillard, C. J., & Van Cauter, E. (2016). Sleep Restriction Enhances the Daily Rhythm of Circulating Levels of Endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoylglycerol. Sleep, 39(3), 653–664. https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.5546
- Watson, N., Badr, M., Belenky, G., Bliwise, D., Buxton, O., Buysse, D., Dinges, D., Gangwisch, J., Grandner, M., Kushida, C., Malhotra, R., Martin, J., Patel, S., Quan, S., Tasali, E. (2015). Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 11(6):591–592. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.4758
Kitty BroihierMS, RD, LD