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It’s tough to eat well when you’re sleep-deprived


If you can no longer button your favorite jeans, trying sleeping better instead of dieting.

As a dietitian, of course I encourage you to eat well and be physically active. But studies show that it’s hard to eat in moderation if you’re sleep-deprived. Sleeplessness ramps up your appetite.

As the sleep-deprived mother of a young child, I can personally attest to the increased appetite. But it’s not just me. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that cutting sleep by an hour and twenty minutes daily caused volunteers to eat an extra 550 calories. That’s enough to gain a pound a week! And unless you’re a growing child or a pregnant woman, that extra weight might be unwelcome.


I’m a dietitian, not a sleep expert. But I like to think of sleep as a sort of vitamin Z—my own made-up term. Like vitamins, sleep is critical to health. Scientists around the world agree that sleep affects everyone, old and young, and can even override inherited tendencies to being overweight.

A massive study of 60,000 Thai adults found those who slept less than 6 hours nightly were 36 to 49 percent more likely to be overweight than Thais who slept more. Studies of thousands of Japan and Australian schoolchildren ages 7 to 17 also found that poor sleepers were more likely to be overweight.

For kids who are sleep-deprived on weekdays, sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday may help. In a study of more than 900 Korean fifth-graders, those who slept in on weekends were 32 percent less likely to be overweight.

Sleep experts say in general, it’s best to get consistently good sleep each night rather than trying to catch up on the weekends. And a Japanese study of over 21,000 people found that folks who slept well consistently were far more likely to maintain normal weight than folks who slept at irregular hours.

Lots of folks blame being overweight on their genes, especially if their family members are heavier than average. It’s the old nature vs. nurture argument. But sleep is a way of nurturing yourself that can partially override the genetic tendency to pack on pounds.

In a study of 1,088 pairs of twins at the University of Washington, researchers found that twins who slept less than 7 hours a night were significantly more overweight than their siblings who slept at least 9 hours.

And a study of 1,000 black and Hispanic folks at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that getting too much or too little sleep was linked to excess belly fat. It’s well-known that an apple-shape body, also known as pot belly, is linked to diabetes and heart disease.

Luckily, changing your lifestyle can help.

Sleep apnea is a common cause of sleep problems that’s linked to weight gain, high blood sugar and heart disease. And it’s treatable, so see your doctor if you suspect you have the disorder, which causes pauses in breathing. Symptoms include loud snoring and daytime sleepiness.


If you need more proof that sleeping enough can help you eat better and lose weight, consider this: Researchers at the University of Arizona–Tucson found that of women who enrolled in a weight-loss program, those who slept more than 7 hours a night and rated their sleep as sound were about 30 percent more likely to lose weight than poor sleepers. Ohio researchers found similar results in a 12-week study designed to help women sleep and eat better, as well as exercise.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, consider trying to go to bed earlier and wake earlier. Your bedtime and mealtime schedules can affect your weight.

Night owls consume more calories after 8 p.m. and more fast food. (Sounds like an old Taco Bell commercial for “Fourth Meal.”) Night owls also tend to be heavier than people with earlier bedtimes. That’s according to studies at Northwestern University.

Your mealtime schedule may affect your sleep. This is particularly important for people who work night shifts or who travel through time zones, but may apply to the rest of us as well. Some researchers suggest that to reset your internal clock and avoid jet lag, you should fast for 12 to 16 hours before breakfast time in your new city or new shift.

This may also apply to night owls who need help falling asleep at decent hour. For example, if you need to wake at 6 a.m., try to eat at least 12 hours earlier—by 6 the night before—and avoid snacks after dinner unless you have a medical reason. And try to be in bed by 10 or 11 p.m., allowing yourself at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep.

There are many other things you can try to sleep better. But first, consider visiting your health-care provider if you’re often sleepless to rule out any medical problems that are interfering with sleep. Once you sleep better, you’ll not just feel more energetic, you’ll feel more satisfied.

Solving sleep problems can help tame an overactive appetite.

Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website,, or by email at