For Teens, Too Little Sleep May Equal Too Many Snacks

September 1, 2010


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By Sarah Klein

WEDNESDAY, September 1 ( — All those late nights spent trolling Facebook, texting friends, and cramming for tests may be taking a toll on teenagers’ diets, a new study suggests.

Teens who average fewer than eight hours of sleep on weeknights tend to eat more fatty foods and high-calorie snacks than their better-rested peers, according to the study, which was published in the journal Sleep.

These unhealthy eating patterns can build up over time, and can lead to entrenched bad habits and weight gain, says Susan Redline, MD, the senior author of the study and a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, in Boston.

Research “clearly has shown [that] individuals getting insufficient amounts of sleep are more likely to be obese and gain weight over time,” Dr. Redline says. “Among adolescents, the sleep-deprived are much more likely to consume more calories and to eat diets much richer in fats and high-density foods.”

The study didn’t show that sleep patterns caused teens to become overweight, but Dr. Redline and her colleagues did find that the 18% of teens in the study who were obese were less likely to get eight hours of sleep than the teens of average weight.

It’s not clear why sleeping less may send teens to the fridge more often. One explanation involves the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which regulate appetite. Not getting enough sleep has been shown to reduce the production of these hormones, which can make a person feel hungrier and fuel cravings for high-calorie snacks.

Social and cultural factors could also play a role, says Kristen Knutson, PhD, an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Chicago. Although Dr. Redline and her colleagues took age, race, and parental education into account in their analysis, parenting style and other hard-to-identify factors could have influenced the data.

“If there’s no chips in the house, [teenagers] are not going to choose that to eat,” says Knutson, who was not involved in the current study but has researched the health effects of short sleep.

It may also be that spending more time awake simply provides more opportunities to snack, Dr. Redline says.

Next page: Most teens don’t get enough sleep

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