Girl eating snackI crave snack food when I’m short on sleep. Cheese, corn chips, salted almonds: these guys are my friends when I’m looking for something to pep me up and fire up the synapses in my brain.

Or so I thought. New research to be presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies next month suggests that fatty foods, far from increasing alertness, actually make us sleepy instead.

“Increased fat consumption has an acute adverse effect on alertness of otherwise healthy, non-obese adults,” said lead investigator Alexandros Vgontzas, MD and professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, quoted in

Who knew? Not me. I try to keep a lid on my consumption of fatty foods for health reasons and to avoid gaining weight. (I’m a member of the “Thinks They’re Always Gaining Weight Club”—never mind if it’s really true. How could I be otherwise when my role model growing up was Twiggy?) But I let my guard down when I’m exhausted and in need of an energy boost. So discovering that foods I’ve relied on to increase my alertness might actually be making me sleepier and duller feels like a betrayal. What gives?

New Research on Food and Alertness

Thirty-one healthy normal sleepers participated in this study, aimed at ascertaining if people’s food intake has an immediate effect on their actual sleepiness. The subjects spent four nights and a day in a sleep lab hooked up to a machine that recorded their brainwaves.

On day 4 of the experiment, subjects were told to take a nap five times during the day. They ate a meal after each nap and, when it came time for the next nap, investigators recorded how long it took them to fall asleep to see if there was a relationship between the type of food eaten and how quickly the subjects fell asleep.


Adjusting for several factors, investigators found that

  • Meals high in fatty foods caused people to fall asleep more quickly
  • Meals high in carbohydrates kept them alert longer
  • Meals high in protein did not appear to impact sleepiness one way or the other.

In light of these results, I’m going to have to rethink this quick energy thing. Can I steer clear of the Gorgonzola and the corn chips in favor of an apple or a slice of bread? The idea isn’t so appealing, and who knows what I’ll be inclined to do the next time I’m slogging along after a bad night.

Still, if energy and alertness is what we’re after (and most of the time, this is the main sleep-related issue for me), then maybe it’s time to come up with a few new options for that mid-afternoon pick-me-up after all.

What foods help the most when you need quick energy?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.


  1. Lois, the first thing that occurs to me is: why not eat fatty foods just before bedtime?

    I know that your emphasis in this essay is on pep and energy that is at a low ebb because of sleeplessness, but I can’t help thinking of the implications for eating fatty food just before sleeping. It seems a good idea for insomniacs. . . .



  2. I wish it were a good idea! It does sound logical.

    Unfortunately, people with insomnia (particularly those classified as “short sleepers,” who when tested in a sleep lab are found to have very short nights) are more likely to become obese, develop type 2 diabetes, and have heart problems than people whose sleep is normal. In general, fatty foods, though we may crave them, are things poor sleepers should avoid.

    Alexandros Vgontzas (the researcher I cite above) and his colleagues at Penn State Hershey have taken the lead on investigating health problems linked to short sleep. Several are related to diet.

    Thanks for raising this important issue.



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