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Less Sleep Could Increase Sugar Cravings in Teens

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Key Takeaways

  • Research on teens suggests that skimping on sleep tends to impact the consumption of sugary foods.
  • This increased intake could be due to daytime fatigue as a result of sleep deprivation, as people try to get quick energy.
  • Previous research shows adults are at risk for the same effect, which means getting quality sleep can be an important part of reducing sugar intake.

A study in Sleep found that teens who got less than the recommended amount of sleep were more likely than those who slept longer to consume foods that spike blood sugar, increasing their risk of excess weight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

“Shortened sleep increased the risk for teens to eat more carbs and added sugars, and drink more sugar-sweetened beverages than when they were getting a healthy amount of sleep,” says the study’s lead author, Kara Duraccio, PhD, a clinical and developmental psychology professor at Brigham Young University.

About the Study

Researchers looked at the eating patterns of 93 teenagers. They studied their caloric intake, macronutrient content, food types, and glycemic loads of foods they ate regularly. They also analyzed sleeping patterns for one week, splitting the participants into two groups—short sleepers who got about 6 1/2 hours of sleep nightly, and healthy sleepers who got about 9 1/2 hours every night.

Kara Duraccio, PhD

We suspect that tired teens are looking for quick bursts of energy to keep them going until they can go to sleep, so they’re seeking out foods that give them that.

— Kara Duraccio, PhD

Dr. Duraccio notes that both groups ate about the same amount of calories. But, those who slept less simply chose more foods with added sugars and high carbohydrates.

“We suspect that tired teens are looking for quick bursts of energy to keep them going until they can go to sleep, so they’re seeking out foods that give them that,” she says.

Ripple Effect

Although sleep is essential for everyone, adolescents are particularly in need of more sleep overall and yet are notorious for not getting enough of it, according to Jodi Mindell, PhD, author of A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep.

The average amount of sleep that teenagers get is about 7 hours, she says. But studies show that most teens need at least 9 hours of sleep, which Dr. Mindell says is caused by a few main issues.

For instance, the biological shift in sleep schedule causes teens to stay up later and wake up later. They also must deal with early high school start times as well as social and school schedules that occur in the evening, causing them to stay up even later.

Jodi Mindell, PhD

Sleep deprivation will impact many aspects of a teenager’s functioning, including mood, behavior, attention, decision making, and academic performance.

— Jodi Mindell, PhD

“As a result of these factors, most adolescents are very sleep-deprived,” she says. “That sleep deprivation will impact many aspects of a teenager’s functioning, including mood, behavior, attention, decision making, and academic performance.”

As the recent study suggests, poor eating habits may also be part of that list, causing an additional ripple effect. For example, a study looking at the prevalence of added sugar intake of teens in Brazil found that those who ate more sugar also have worse overall diet quality and spend more time on electronic devices.

Adults Affected, Too

Although the recent study highlighted the effects on teenagers, the results could apply to adults as well. For example, looking at people who do shift work—and therefore have unpredictable sleep schedules—provides a glimpse of the connection between sleep shortfalls and diet quality.

“There are many difficulties when it comes to dietary recommendations for shift workers,” says Arne Lowden, PhD, at the Stress Research Institute at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. “Most notably, they tend to rely on convenience foods, such as sugary treats and high-carbohydrate choices to maintain energy during a shift.”

That practice doesn’t just add calories, though. According to a 2021 study in Science Advances, the circadian rhythm misalignment that comes with staying up all night can lead to glucose intolerance as well.

In that study, those who refrained from eating during their shifts had better-regulated glucose levels, an indication that eating at night may have a significant effect on your metabolism. Choosing sugary foods may add another challenge on top of that.

The Sleep-Sugar Connection

The same issues of less sleep and food choices can affect non-shift workers as well, according to previous research. A 2016 study in Sleep Health found that shorter sleep duration has been linked to increased appetite and obesity in general. Participants who slept 5 or fewer hours per night had a 21% higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages during the day.

Overall, skimping on sleep could drive up sugar cravings, and at the same time, increased sugar consumption might negatively impact sleep—setting up an ugly cycle.

What This Means For You

Research suggests that getting less sleep than recommended could increase consumption of sugary foods, potentially raising health risks along the way. One of the best ways to prevent this from occurring in your life is to make sure you develop a healthy sleep regimen. If you are struggling with insomnia, wake up gasping for breath, or feel tired throughout the day despite getting enough sleep, you should talk to a healthcare provider. It could be that you have a sleep issue that is impacting the quality of your sleep.


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