A new study, from St Luke’s – Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York, shows that tired brains are more likely to crave junk food. You’ve likely seen a lot of articles about how sleep is critical to weight loss. This is another.
I’ve written many times that the most important reason sleep affects body weight is the willpower aspect. When you don’t get enough sleep, you lack the energy to exercise, resist junk food and make healthy choices. There are other hormonal and metabolic issues at play, but they pale in comparison to the fact that you’re just too darn tired to make those difficult choices to eat right and exercise.
Brain scans of tired people, versus those who were rested, showed that images of junk food and healthy food promoted different neurological responses. “The unhealthy food response was a neuronal pattern specific to restricted sleep. This may suggest greater propensity to succumb to unhealthy foods when one is sleep restricted,” said the research. The reward centers in the brain were more active when seeing pictures of junk food when they were sleep deprived. An active reward center makes you crave something more.
So of course we all recommend getting a good nights sleep to help fight junk food cravings, but don’t forget the all-important exercise connection. Being well rested will also increase your energy levels for activity. And as I’ve written about before, exercise works on those same neuro-chemical reward pathways in the brain as junk food. When you get a dose of feel-good endorphins from a good sweat, it sates the reward sensations in advance so you’re less likely to crave junk food. What’s more, if you do actually follow through and eat the junk anyway then the reward sensations are blunted. The positive reinforcement is reduced and you’re less likely to keep eating it.
Finally, there’s the psychological aspect of regular exercise. People who regularly workout start to think more mindfully about what they eat. They’re prone to putting healthy fuel in their bodies plus, regular workouts help you sleep better which brings us full circle. Exercise helps you sleep better, which makes you less tired which, based on this study, will make you crave junk less. Win. Win. Win.