“It is well-established” that getting too little sleep night after night can lead to weight gain and eventually obesity, says Marie-Pierre St-Onge. That’s been demonstrated in adults and children. People who sleep too little consume more calories, especially from snacks, she says.
But what about the converse? Does what we eat affect the quality of our sleep even when we get enough shut-eye? “Interestingly,” St-Onge notes, this has received much less attention from researchers.
So she and her colleagues at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University set out to provide some answers.
volunteering to sleep in a lab
They recruited 26 healthy, normal-weight men and women, average age of 35, to spend 5 days and nights in a research facility where their sleep was closely monitored. For the first four days, the researchers fed the participants a healthy diet that contained just enough food to match their calorie needs. On the fifth day, the men and women were given $25 each to go out and buy whatever food they wanted and bring it back to the lab where it was measured and recorded.
On the fifth day when they could eat what they wanted, the participants consumed more calories than they needed and that night they slept just as long as they had on the earlier nights. However, it took them 12 more minutes to fall asleep that fifth night. In fact, a third of them who didn’t have a problem falling asleep during the first four nights didn’t fall asleep for at least 30 minutes on the fifth night, which would be a sign of insomnia if this persisted over time.
And what about fiber, protein, sugar, or saturated fat?
The more fiber in the food they ate, the deeper and more restorative their sleep. The more saturated fat they ate, on the other hand, the lighter and less restorative their sleep. And the more sugar and other carbohydrates they consumed, the more likely they were to awaken in the middle of the night.
How much protein they consumed didn’t matter to the quality of their sleep.
This isn’t the final word and more research is needed, of course. But it does suggest, Marie-Pierre St-Onge points out, that “diet-based recommendations may be warranted for those who suffer from sleep disorders.”
Source: St-Onge MP, Roberts A, Shechter A, Choudhury AR. Fiber and saturated fat are associated with sleep arousals and slow wave sleep. J. Clin. Sleep Med 2016;12(1):19–24.
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