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Can a Lack of Sleep Make You Fat?

Early last week, a study was released that clearly outlined a pattern that many people are painfully familiar with: lack of sleep not only encourages the brain to develop a stronger connection to the sugar-fat-salt trifecta in certain foods, but also makes it more difficult to fight the cravings for it.

Originally, theories about poor sleep and metabolism ran the gamut. “People eat more because they’re awake more,” “people who are awake eat excess calories at night, causing weight gain,” “bodies ‘burn fewer calories at night,’ (thereby justifying the ‘don’t eat after 7PM’ rule),” and more all influenced people’s individual choices about what they eat and when they eat it. Now, there might be another argument for the sleep-food connection.

The study looked at the brain imaging of 23 subjects as they ate, while in various states of being rested or sleep-deprived. Apparently, reward-centers of the brain reacted stronger to junk food while sleep-deprived, than it did when well-rested. The lobes of the brain most responsible for regulating food choices responded more poorly in the sleep-deprived mind than in the well-rested one, as well.

Dr. Matthew P. Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, spoke to The New York Times about the study:

“Their hunger was no different when they were sleep deprived and when they had a normal night of sleep […] that’s important because it suggests that the changes we’re seeing are caused by sleep deprivation itself, rather than simply being perhaps more metabolically impaired when you’re sleep deprived.”

Even without this small study, I think there are a few things we could ascertain about people’s natural behavioral patterns and how they relate to sleep and eating:

1)  Considering that sleep is often a means of relieving stress, it’s safe to assume that a person who is losing sleep is also likely to be high on stress, and the likelihood of coping with that stress through eating unhealthy junk foods becomes higher.

2)  As sleep is the body’s opportunity to rest and recharge for the following day, a failure to do that also contributes to a person thinking slower, moving slower and being less energetic. This contributes to fewer calories being burned throughout the day.

3)  The break in eating between dinner and breakfast – otherwise known as the “fasting period” – allows the body to rest, the insulin receptors to recalibrate, and the appetite- and stress-related hormones to normalize; lack of sleep negatively affects all of these bodily functions, making you more likely to develop the associated illnesses.

What does this information mean for you? Does this mean that sleep can be the answer to all your health and nutritional woes?

Not entirely.

In the war against unhealthy eating, sleep is a powerful weapon. A rested mind is far more capable of making mindful food choices throughout the day.   A rested body is better able to handle some of the unhealthy choices you might occasionally make (once in a blue moon, that is…right?). And, while this can be a great help, none of this changes the fact that we must do our best to not float into “auto-pilot” and make our food choices without eating.  As I always say, your body will thank you for it!

Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer behind the award winning blog A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, where she blogs her journey from 330lb couch potato to certified personal trainer and nutritionist. Ask her your fitness-related questions on Facebook and Twitter.