Can tiredness lead to poor food choices?
We've all been guilty of coming home from a killer day at the office, slumping on the sofa and eating a bar of chocolate or a bag of crisps. Treating yourself to high fat, sugary food is a bad habit, it's true, but provided you only have the occasional treat as part of a balanced, healthy diet, it's not the end of the world.
However, research shows that tiredness could actually lead us to make poor food choices. This is increasingly concerning, as here in the UK, we work the longest hours in Europe, and more of us are busy and tired than ever before. Spending a 10 hour day at your desk might not seem like a big deal, but if it leaves you reaching for cakes, doughnuts and fizzy drinks, something has to change. We reveal the science behind why tiredness could cause you to pick high-calorie, fatty foods over that healthy salad, and offer some practical tips to help you make better food choices, even when you're in desperate need of a nap.
Sleep deprivation and brain activity
A study carried out by scientists at Uppsala University in Sweden revealed that lack of sleep could lead to raised levels of a hormone which could boost hunger. Adults taking part in the study spent a whole night without sleep and the following morning, were presented with 40 items of food to choose from. The results revealed that items chosen had 9% more calories compared to food items chosen after the participants had enjoyed a good night's sleep.
Sleepless nights and tiredness could mean you will exercise less self-control not only when choosing which foods to eat, but also when you're shopping for food; most of us tend to pick up ingredients for several meals at once. You're increasingly likely to buy high-calorie, unhealthy foods if you're chronically sleep deprived (1).
Stress and tiredness at work
Regularly spending 10 or more hours a day at your desk, missing out on sleep and trying to cram everything into your day can leave you feeling stressed and tired. But that's not all; it could also make it harder for you to resist fatty, high-calorie foods throughout the day (2).
A study carried out by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2011 showed that sleepiness during the daytime was associated with a reduced response in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, when people were shown images of delicious, high-calorie food. What does this mean? Well, it shows that sleepiness could affect brain responses that regulate not only how much food we eat but which foods we choose. 12 healthy adults between the ages of 19 and 45 participated in the study, and all participants were shown photos of both high and low-calorie foods for four minutes.
When presented with images of high-calorie foods, such as chips, cheesecake and chocolate, those who were sleepier showed signs of lower activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which could cause our mental guard against consuming junk food to fail. Participants in this study weren't deprived of sleep, as in the Swedish study – they simply showed normal levels of tiredness as a result of going to bed an hour or two later than normal. For many of us, this is a regular bad habit. We know we need between eight to 10 hours of sleep a night; but how many of us actually get the required amount of sleep on a regular basis? The study shows that even regular levels of tiredness could weaken your willpower, making it harder to turn down unhealthy food.
Getting your eight hours
So what's the solution? Should we all give up and start reaching for sugary, fatty foods the second we feel that 3pm slump hitting? Firstly, it's important to address your sleep habits. If you're not regularly getting enough sleep, look at why. Perhaps you could try some of the following:
- Go to bed earlier – aim for the same time every night and enjoy an hour of unwinding before bed time to help you drift off to sleep
- Turn your mobile phone, laptop, TV and other electrical devices off an hour before bedtime and have a bath or try reading instead
- Use natural sleep aids such as chamomile tea and Valerian, which have been used for centuries to help treat insomnia
- Write down anything that's stressing you and promise yourself you'll deal with it in the morning – worrying about problems at night can make them seem worse
As well as tackling the issue of getting more sleep at night, it's important to look at how to boost your energy levels during the day, as most of us will still naturally feel more tired between 3pm and 4pm. The urge to nap mid-afternoon is often blamed on eating a heavy lunch, but you've had a healthy, light tuna salad, so why do you still feel sleepy? Scientists now believe that the urge to get some shut-eye mid-afternoon has little to do with our eating habits; it's actually built-in. Dr Dement, director of Stanford University's Sleep Disorders Clinic, says, “It seems nature definitely intended that adults should nap in the middle of the day, perhaps to get out of the midday sun.” (3)
Napping – should you or shouldn't you?
The idea of a mid-afternoon nap can seem incredibly appealing, but what about when you've a mountain of work to tackle? If there's no time to nap, your food choices could be affected by your tiredness levels – but step away from that can of Coke. There are natural ways to beat the 3pm slump – try some of these ideas:
- Enjoy a lunchtime workout – get out of the office and go for a walk or a run, take a fitness class (yoga or pilates are relaxing and de-stressing) or even carry out some body weight exercises and stretches in your office
- Snack on high-protein foods to give you energy. A tuna, salmon, chicken or avocado salad or hummus with vegetables provides you with plenty of protein to fill you up and stop you snacking later on, whilst giving you the energy you need to make it through the day
- Try some of our energy bites for goodness and natural energy whenever you feel the slump hitting. A couple of these will banish cravings for sugary, fatty food and ensure you have plenty of energy to reach 5pm – and maybe even enough energy for an after-work gym session!
Of course, if you do have time for a quick nap on a day off or quiet afternoon at work, this can help to boost your mental alertness and could also banish cravings for unhealthy snacks.
The answer to the question we asked is simple; yes, tiredness can lead to poor food choices. But it doesn't have to be that way. By getting a better night's sleep, eating a protein-rich breakfast and lunch and getting plenty of exercise, you can stave off tiredness and ensure your food choices are healthy ones.
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