We’ve had some late nights and sleepy days recently. Once we are past the hour we’d like to be in bed, either my husband or I tend to reach for a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa. Sure, they are both organic and all that, but they are the most “snack-y” unhealthy food we have in the house. Our late-night snacking has obviously been connected to staying up too late and being overly tired.
Well, it seems that recent studies back up our experience. We don’t automatically reach for carrot sticks when we are tired. One recent study from the University of California found that when we are sleepy, there is significantly impaired activity in part of the frontal area of the brain. This part of the brain helps us control behavior and make complex choices. And let’s admit it people, it takes self-control and the ability to make complex choices when you know you have a delicious bag of chips in the house, have to stay up late, and are already overtired. (If you find yourself overeating when overtired, you can blame it on your brain!)
Another study found that pictures of unhealthy foods activated areas in the brain of sleep-deprived participants considered “reward” centers. If you had gotten only a couple of hours of sleep for five nights like they had, and managed not to drop out of the study, you’d want some reward food, too!
I know that when I am really sleep-deprived, I want to start eating to give me an energy boost. Food does give us a short energy boost. However, if we are chronically sleep-deprived, not only is the sleep deprivation bad for us, but our eating choices go down the tubes, too. Not to mention, when you feel exhausted, who really wants to put a lot of effort into making a healthy dinner?
All this to say, getting a decent night’s sleep is another aspect of healthy eating. In fact, I would say it is vital. I can back that up by my experience of the last year and a half. Our youngest goes through spurts of not sleeping well during the night, and I notice after a couple of nights of little sleep that it is very hard to stay motivated about cooking healthy meals, and there's a tendency to reach for a snack instead.
And perhaps that offers one clue to Americans/ propensity for junk food; we are an over-stressed, under-rested people using food to keep us going.
Related: 8 ways to overcome emotional eating