The scientific community has long known that individuals who experience sleep deprivation, either due to lifestyle choice or secondary to medical or psychiatric illness, are more likely to experience accidental injury, comorbid illness, and psychosocial-societal complications. New research now associates decreased quality of sleep with an increased tendency to participate in late-night snacking, resulting in a greater likelihood of developing obesity and diabetes. Additionally, the study team highlights that the snacks of choice were generally considered “junk food,” thus raising the risk of negative outcomes when compared to a healthier snack selection.

The research was conducted by lead author Christopher Sanchez, a UA student research assistant in the Sleep and Health Research Program directed by Michael A. Grandner, PhD, MTR. In addition to serving as director of the UA Sleep and Health Research Program and the UA Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic, Dr. Grandner is also a UA assistant professor of psychiatry. William D. “Scott” Killgore, PhD, UA professor of psychiatry, medical imaging and psychology, and director of the UA Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, also collaborated in the study.

Sanchez noted that the study emphasizes the important connection between sleep and eating patterns which, when functioning optimally, interact positively to enhance health. “Sleep is increasingly recognized as an important factor in health, alongside nutrition,” he said.

The study was based on a survey conducted with 3,105 adult participants across the United States. The survey, conducted over the telephone, asked about current health conditions and the prevalence of nighttime snacking. The participants were also asked they had an increased tendency to snack and whether their choice of the quality of snack seemed to be decreased when they experienced insufficient sleep. Although roughly 60% of participants reported regular nighttime snacking, 66% of the participants reported that insufficient sleep caused increased junk-food cravings.  

“Laboratory studies suggest that sleep deprivation can lead to junk food cravings at night, which leads to increased unhealthy snacking at night, which then leads to weight gain. This study provides important information about the process, that these laboratory findings may actually translate to the real world,” noted Dr. Grandner. “This connection between poor sleep, junk food cravings and unhealthy nighttime snacking may represent an important way that sleep helps regulate metabolism.”

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