10/30/2010 03:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Link Between Lack of Sleep and Overeating

Important news for parents of teens: the latest headlines in the sleep literature say teens who sleep less eat more. And they aren't reaching for fruits and veggies.

It's not news to scientists who've found that people who sleep fewer than the hours their bodies need have a stronger craving for fatty foods and snacks -- all of which can send a roaring teen metabolism on vacation and open the door to weight gain and obesity.

But this latest study went a bit further to show a relationship between sleep duration and snacking, a favorite food activity for teens:

  • For each one-hour increase in sleep duration, the odds of consuming a high amount of calories from snacks decreased by an average of 21 percent.
  • A significantly greater proportion of teens who slept less than eight hours per weeknight consumed food in the early morning between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.
  • Specifically, the researchers found that--after adjusting for factors like age, sex, and race--teens who slept less than eight hours on weeknights consumed 2.2 percent more calories from fats and 3 percent fewer calories from carbs than teens who slept eight hours or more.

News like this doesn't  bode well for the future of our children given the fact sleep is last on their list of things to do. What's more, 2.2 percent more calories from fats may not seem like a lot, but when you add it all up over time it can amount to a weighty number.

The challenge: teaching our children to establish good sleep habits, knowing that this may be part of the struggle we have in teaching healthy eating habits! Unknowingly, teens may be establishing a vicious cycle where their food choices are driven by their sleep choices.

Teenagers are likely to be saddled with body image issues. An unbalanced diet in adolescence, especially one with high fat content, has both short -- and long-term health consequences. If a lack of sleep is behind these eating habits, try a conversation about sleep, diet, and health.  How much of a sacrifice would it take for them to get to bed earlier? Today's teens have many responsibilities, heavy academic loads, extracurricular activities, and the typical teen social attractions and distractions, all of which often make their list of priorities ahead of sleep Maybe you can compromise on a reasonable bedtime, try it out for a week and adjust it later.

The good news is that the importance of sleep might motivate them to make a change--much more so than insisting that they eat their broccoli and take their vitamins. If they knew that a solid start to a healthy body is just a good night's sleep away ... well, you never know. It just might be the ticket to a healthier, and maybe happier, teenager. And a healthy, happy household.


Sweet Dreams

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™