Eating-Honey2Preparing for a book launch can be stressful, and when I’m stressed out, two things happen. One, sleep goes on the lam, and two, I eat to compensate. Last night it was an ice cream cone at Stucchi’s. The night before, I opened a honey jar and had some honey straight up. Move over, Winnie the Pooh!

Sweets and fat are irresistible when I’m feeling sleep deprived, and a new study from UPenn suggests I’m far from abnormal in that regard. In this study, just five nights of sleep restriction led to a significantly higher intake of calories and weight gain among subjects who were allowed to spend only four hours a night in bed. Short sleep and weight gain apparently go hand in hand.

The particulars are alarming, so read on.

Sleep Restriction Experiment

Researchers monitored 225 subjects—male and female, African American and Caucasian—in a sleep lab for five days. At night, the 27 control subjects could sleep as long as they wished. The other 198 subjects were only allowed to sleep between 4 and 8 a.m. While awake, the subjects spent their time reading, watching TV, and playing video and board games. Exercise was not allowed. Food was available at all times except during testing. Subjects could eat what and when they wanted.


After just five days of sleep restriction,

  • Sleep-restricted subjects gained an average of two pounds, while controls gained a few ounces.
  • Among the sleep-restricted subjects, weight gain was highest among African-American males and lowest among Caucasian females.
  • Sleep-restricted subjects consumed 30 percent more calories than control subjects.
  • Consumption of the extra calories occurred between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

The Take-Away

A chronically sleep-deprived lifestyle—particularly one where you have to stay up late at night—sets you up for being overweight. If just five nights of sleep restriction result in a gain of two pounds, what will months and months of short sleep do?

Fortunately my bouts of stress-induced insomnia are rarer than they used to be, so most of the time I’m eating lots of fruit, veggies, fish, and whole grains rather than honey and ice cream. Still, the food cravings I get after just a couple nights of short sleep are so marked that I can’t help but wonder: how much of America’s obesity epidemic is due to poor and insufficient sleep?

What foods are you drawn to when you feel sleep deprived?

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.

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