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Not getting enough sleep? That might lead to junk food cravings

Sleep deprivation can lead people to make poor food choice throughout the day. But Mendez says some smart food choices can help you sleep better.
Sleep deprivation can lead people to make poor food choice throughout the day. But Mendez says some smart food choices can help you sleep better.

We know too little sleep can cause fatigue. But a recent study found it also can adversely affect hormones that usually help you control hunger. Parkland Hospital dietitian Melissa Mendez explains how to KERA’s Sam Baker.

What does sleep have to do with diet overall? 

When we don't sleep enough, it starts to mess with our hormones. Cortisol and ghrelin increase my appetite. If I don't sleep well enough, those actually go up. My appetite is increased.

Another hormone called leptin gives me the feeling of satisfaction that I'm full after eating. That one actually goes down if we don't sleep enough. So, as I'm eating, I'm not feeling full. I'm still hungry. I want to keep eating and eating. 

But why particularly junk food? 

So my thinking there is that as I'm waking up, I'm exhausted, I'm tired. You know, I go throughout my day, we have busy lives and by the end of the day, I come home and I'm too tired to make any food. I'm just craving just those delicious fatty and sweet items. And we usually go for the easy things, things that are already pre-made, prepackaged, and just full of sugar and fat. 

Are you encountering this problem with the clients you work with? 

Yes. And I know that right now a lot of people are trying to lose weight. And for me, I think we need to take care of what's on the inside. I need to prevent medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. And a lot of people are more focused on wanting to lose weight.

But in the end, if I really restrict my calorie intake, it could hurt me. In the end, my metabolism is affected and I get hungry at the end of the day and I'm more likely to eat more calories than I needed. And because I may not be getting enough sleep, it could affect the types of foods that I'm eating which are higher in calories. 

Obviously, the best fix here would be to try to improve your sleep. But until or unless you do that, how do you control or cure that craving? 

I think making sure that we get three meals a day would be great, and making sure that we are getting a balance of foods. An example here is we need protein and carb together because those are the ones that make me feel satisfied.

So, the example here would be a turkey breast with a cup of quinoa. And then on the side we also need a high dose of fiber so we could get a side of steamed vegetables, making the meal bulkier. So that way I feel satisfied. It's healthy and I'm getting that carb protein and vegetable in each meal.

We can also have snacks in between our meals. So, things like, again, a carbon or protein together will make me feel satisfied. An example would be one tablespoon of peanut butter with some slices of apples. The protein is the peanut butter, the carbohydrate is the apple.

So technically, I could have three meals a day and three snacks in between. So that way, by the time the end of the day comes to a head, I've got my meals. They're satisfying. I don't need to overeat at the end of the day. 

Are there any foods that you can eat that might actually help you to sleep better?

Yes, there are several foods that help us. I found an article by style from the mediators of Inflammation Journal and they found that foods with vitamin D actually help better sleep quality. It helps lengthen sleep time and increases our sleepiness. So foods with vitamin D are from:

  • salmon
  • tuna
  • milk
  • egg yolks

An article from the Brain Research Bulletin found that foods with vitamin C also help against memory issues that come from a lack of sleep. So the vitamin C, we're finding them in different fruits and vegetables. So it's very important to have a variety of the rainbow of colors of fruits and vegetables.

And then the Journal of Nutrition says if we lack omega-3 fatty acids, it actually disturbs our nocturnal sleep. So that would include foods like:

  • flax seeds
  • chia seeds
  • walnuts
  • fish 

Striving for a balanced diet could probably help us with sleep.

It can help with sleep and to ward off other medical conditions in the future.


Sleep & Junk Food study

Sleep & Junk Food study 2

Why we crave junk food after a sleepless night

The Impact of Nutrients, Dietary Components and Derivatives on the Gut Microbiota and Inflammation-Related Diseases, from Molecular Basis to Therapy

An (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acid-deficient diet disturbs daily locomotor activity, melatonin rhythm, and striatal dopamine in Syrian hamsters

Higher levels of omega-3 in diet are associated with better sleep, study shows

Here’s the Deal With Your Junk Food Cravings: Practical tips for curbing cravings and smart swaps

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.