In case you're still fighting it: New studies prove again that sleep plays a key role in weight management

Chew on this and it might help you cut out cravings.

Chew on this and it might help you cut out cravings.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

You've probably caught yourself, on days when you are especially tired, reaching for more coffee (of course), but also for sugary snacks, fast food or other junk that you can normally resist. You may have (correctly) assumed that your brain and body are looking for quick, easy hits of energy to help keep you alert. But researchers continue to prove that there is more to this sleep deprivation-junk food connection than meets the eye and there are factors beyond the reach of our willpower that make lack of sleep a serious culprit in our efforts to maintain a healthy diet.

There is no question that weight loss is complicated. Of course, the number one contributor to healthy weight is what we put into our mouths, but according to the authors of a new study out of King's College London, "Sleep is increasingly recognized as a potential modifiable risk factor that may be involved in the complex etiology of obesity and cardiometabolic diseases." The study took a close look at the habits of habitually "short sleepers", that is people who sleep between 5 and 7 hours a night. Participants were divided into two groups: one group maintained their short sleep habits, the other was counselled on ways to extend their sleep. The sleep extension group spent on average an extra hour between the sheets and remarkably, without any dietary coaching, they showed a significant reduction in their intake of sugar, fat and carbohydrates compared to the control group.

The principal investigator, Dr Wendy Hall, observed, "The fact that extending sleep led to a reduction in intake of free sugars, by which we mean the sugars that are added to foods by manufacturers or in cooking at home as well as sugars in honey, syrups and fruit juice, suggests that a simple change in lifestyle may really help people to consume healthier diets."

Researchers have been telling us for years that getting enough sleep is crucial for feeling our best and also for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. This new study involving sugar consumption only adds to the evidence. We already know that sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on our appetite hormones, increasing the hormone that makes us feel hungry, while decreasing the one that tells us to stop eating. Another study demonstrated that sleep deprivation has a double-whammy effect on the brain: first causing people to crave higher calorie junk foods, while also reducing the activity in the brain's frontal cortex, which is responsible for making rational decisions and putting the brakes on damaging behaviour. And yet another study has shown that chronically sleep-deprived people are susceptible to weight gain because they consume more calories throughout the day as well as during late night hours (when they ought to be sleeping).

Unfortunately, children are at risk for the same sort of health problems due to poor sleep. According to Bernard Fuemmeler, PhD, MPH, the lead author of a new study out of the Massey Cancer Centre, "Today, many children are not getting enough sleep… this, perpetuated over time, can be a risk factor for obesity."

So what is a night owl to do? If you are sleeping fewer than 7 to 9 hours a night, but getting to sleep an hour earlier seems daunting, ease into a new routine by moving your bedtime a little earlier each night and follow this advice from the Canadian Sleep Centre: make sleep a priority and keep a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends; establish a comfortable sleep environment and a relaxing bedtime routine; avoid stimulants close to bedtime (including caffeine and exercise); save the bedroom for sleep and intimacy.

The good news is that knowledge is power. So now that we have a better understanding of the importance of sleep to our health (and our waistlines), we can use that knowledge as a great excuse to hit the sack a little earlier. I mean, really…when was the last time an expert recommended that you do more of the most sedentary activity out there for the good of your health?

Shannon Sponagle is a Nutritional Consultant and freelance writer living in Lunenburg, NS.