07/16/2010 09:00 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Short Sleep and Fast Food

If you're among those who constantly crave fast and fatty foods, I need to ask you: When's the last time you got a long night's sleep?

And then I'd want to follow up and ask about your waistline, too. Why?

This is not a trick question. It turns out that all three are associated with one another: being overweight (and in some cases, obese), being a "short" sleeper (i.e., logging six hours or less a night), and being in the habit of eating out and enjoying fatty foods.

I've blogged about the relationship between sleep and weight maintenance many times. In brief: the more high-quality sleep you get, the easier it is to lose unwanted weight and keep that weight off. Restful sleep keeps your metabolism in check through a variety of biological pathways that can run amok when you don't get your ZZZs.

So the opposite is also true: sleep less than your body needs and you run a higher risk of being overweight and having a hard time turning away from junk foods, especially the high-carb, fat-rich fare typical of the eating-out lifestyle.

Last year, a study in an issue of Sleep showed a clear association between averaging five hours or less of sleep each night and large increases in visceral fat, or fat around the organs. And now we have another study also published in Sleep (May 2010) to add insult to injury: A large Japanese study suggests eating habits are only part of the reason why short sleep duration is interconnected with obesity. Specifically:

  • People categorized as short sleepers tended to weigh more and exercise less.
  • The same group was also more likely to prefer fatty food, snack more frequently and eat out more often.
  • Those dietary habits were also associated with a high BMI, a characteristic of obesity.

Granted, the study wasn't perfectly performed. Women were excluded and only middle-aged Japanese men were observed. How much participants slept was determined by their own self-reporting, so that aspect was reliant on people's trusty responses. Nevertheless, I think the lessons gained from this study would likely be found again and again across other studies, including those that examine women and people of different cultures.

As I've said before, so many people focus on diet and exercise when they want to shed unwanted pounds and gain control of their eating habits. They turn to crazy programs, seek foods to "amp up" their metabolism and tone down cravings, pick up unrealistic exercise regimens, and generally white-knuckle themselves into a fleeting lifestyle of deprivation, restriction and boot camp.

But what if your solution were just a long night's sleep away? What if you could take control of your waistline and hankering for fast food just by logging a few more minutes (and for some, hours) of restful sleep a night? Something to sleep on--especially as we enter the summer (bathing suit!) season.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

This article on short sleepers and weight gain is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog: by Sleep Doctor Michael Breus, PhD.