As a population there are two clear and distressing trends at play and the link between both should not be underestimated.

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Trend one: we’re getting heavier. The incidence of obesity is rising at an alarming rate.

Trend two: we’re sleep deprived. Increasingly people are struggling to get to sleep and stay asleep.

Studies have found these two trends are intimately linked. Any experienced nutritionist or dietitian should ask about your sleep patterns – and for good reason: it's an essential healthy habit we need to function at our fullest. If you’re getting less than eight hours sleep on a regular basis, the body changes the way it releases appetite-controlling hormones. So, before you hit ‘next episode’ on Netflix tonight, acquaint yourself with the important role sleep plays in your diet.

Sleep and appetite 

There’s a science behind why you crave sugar when you’re sleepy – bear with us. 

You see, your appetite, by and large, is regulated by the hormones ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin helps to stimulate hunger cravings, allowing your body to know when it’s time to eat and leptin acts as an appetite suppressor, promoting feelings of fullness and satiety. However, if you don’t get enough sleep, it can interfere with the balance of these hormones, increasing your levels of ghrelin and your susceptibility to cravings.

Found yourself reaching for chocolate when the afternoon energy crash hits? We've all been there - it’s no secret that fatigue gives way to intense sugar and/or carb cravings. Sleep lowers your energy levels meaning your body is desperate to locate alternative and fast-acting sources of fuel. Carb-heavy foods and sugar can, briefly, increase your energy levels but they also cause a drastic ‘crash’ resulting in even more cravings, hence creating a vicious cycle.

Bad news if you’re an emotional eater! If you find solace in food when you’re down, also known as comfort eating, then you’ll be particularly susceptible to cravings when tired. A poor night’s rest will often leave you sensitive and emotionally vulnerable the next day leading to impulsive food choices – again a vicious cycle.

But wait, there’s more!

The effects of insufficient sleep extend beyond just cravings. The types and quantities of food purchased during sleep deprivation often veer from what you’d pick when rested. A study that focused on food purchasing found that sleep deprivation saw participants buy larger amounts of high-calorie foods. 

The most common cravings 

Below are a few of the common foods people gravitate to when running on an empty tank. And, there’s more to it than you think.

Chocolate

Statistically, women tend to desire chocolate more than men, which is mainly due to hormone fluctuations. Like during menstruation and pregnancy, the hormone shifts when sleep deprived may see women reaching for the Dairy Milk.

Potato crisps or fries

Salt and vinegar chips more your thing? Or, a punnet of hot fries coated in salty goodness? When tired, you are more susceptible to stress which means your adrenal glands work overtime to produce stress hormones such as corticosterone and aldosterone. The latter being a hormone that helps to control your blood pressure by maintaining the right balance of sodium and water. When your adrenal glands are fatigued your balance of sodium and water is affected creating those intense cravings for all things salty!

Red meat

If you find yourself queuing up for a burger when tired there’s a reason for that. Red meat, when consumed in moderation, contains high quantities of iron and vitamin B12– two nutrients essential for energy.  

Pasta or pizza

If a big calorie-heavy meal like mac and cheese or pizza is on your radar, then you’re body is really on the hunt for carbohydrates. Just like athletes ‘carb-load’ before a race, carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel. However, be careful, too much carbs can affect your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. 

Rest up!

It comes down to this—lack of sleep makes it hard to make healthy decisions surrounding food whether that be what you’re eating or buying. The hormonal and emotional changes make it difficult to follow a well-balanced diet. Ongoing sleep deprivation should be taken seriously – it can lead to more serious health problems like increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, as well as mental health issues. 

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