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Women who get too little sleep are more likely to overeat and have poor diets, study finds

Not getting enough sleep was found to be particularly associated with eating more added sugars and more food in general.

Women are particularly prone to poor sleep quality and sleep disturbances.
Photo by twinsfisch on Unsplash

Women who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to both overeat and have a lower-quality diet than women who get a good night’s sleep, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Not getting enough sleep was found to be particularly associated with eating more added sugars and more food in general.

By providing new insights into the interconnected relationship between sleep and diet, these findings highlight how poor-quality sleep can increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“In our modern society, we oftentimes work late, we eat our meals late and sometimes sleep is kind of put by the wayside in terms of how important it is to our overall healthy lifestyle,” said Brooke Aggarwal, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University, in an interview with CNN reporter Kristen Rogers.

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“Our study really highlights the importance of good, quality sleep for the management of body weight as well as potentially preventing heart disease among women,” she added.

As background information in the study points out, women are particularly prone to poor sleep quality and sleep disturbances. They are also at increased risk for obesity.

How the study was done

The study involved 495 women from the New York City area who had volunteered to participate in the American Heart Association Go Red for Women research initiative.  The women ranged in age from 20 to 76, and most (61 percent) were members of a racial or ethnic minority group. Almost half (49 percent) had a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight or obese categories.

The women filled out detailed questionnaires about their sleep patterns, including how long it took them to fall asleep, how often they woke up during the night, and how long they slept overall. More than a fourth of the women slept less than seven hours a day (the minimum amount sleep experts recommend for adults), and a third of them reported poor sleep quality or insomnia.

The women also provided details about their dietary habits, including the types and amounts of foods they typically ate. On average, the women exceeded the recommendations for added sugars and total and saturated fats. They also failed, on average, to meet the recommendations for whole grains, fiber and dairy intakes.

Key findings

The researchers analyzed all that data to see if they could identify any correlations between sleep patterns and dietary habits. They found the following:

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  • Women who reported the worse overall sleep quality were the most likely to consume food with added sugars, which have been linked to an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
  • Women who specifically reported having difficulty falling asleep tended to take in more calories than those who drifted off to sleep more easily.
  • Women with severe insomnia also tended to consume more food by weight than women with mild or no insomnia. And they ate fewer unsaturated fats.

That last finding is important, according to the researchers, because when eaten in moderation, unsaturated fats (found in olive and other liquid vegetable oils, as well as in fish and some plant-based foods, such as avocados and walnuts) are believed to help lower cholesterol levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease. (The premise that unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated ones is not without controversy, however.)

“Our interpretation is that women with poor-quality sleep could be overeating during subsequent meals and making more unhealthy foods choices,” says Aggarwal in a released statement.

Limitations and implications

The study’s participants provided the researchers all the information on both their sleep patterns and dietary habits. Such self-reports can be subjective and, thus, inaccurate.

In addition, this was an observational study, so it can’t prove that poor-quality sleep led to unhealthier food choices.

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“It’s also possible that poor diet has a negative impact on women’s sleep quality,” explains Faris Zuraikat, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, in a released statement. “Eating more could also cause gastrointestinal discomfort, for instance, making it harder to fall asleep or remain asleep.”

Still, a connection between insomnia and overeating does make biophysiological sense.

“Poor sleep quality may lead to excessive food and calorie intake by stimulating hunger signals or suppressing signals of fullness,” Zuraikat says. “Fullness is largely affected by the weight or volume of food consumed, and it could be that women with insomnia consume a greater amount of food in an effort to feel full.”

“Given that poor diet and overeating may lead to obesity — a well-established risk factor for heart disease — future studies should test whether therapies that improve sleep quality can promote cardiometabolic health in women,” adds Aggarwal.

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Journal of the American Heart Association website. For tips on how to get a better night’s sleep, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.