Is lack of sleep making weight loss harder?

Sophie Edgington - Nutritionist | 14 Mar, 2021

In a recent poll, we asked Nutracheck members if they had experienced any changes in their sleep patterns over the last 12 months. Worryingly almost half said they were sleeping less or having disturbed sleep.

The ideal amount of sleep for most adults is 7-9 hours, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. Many of us get much less than this due to our busy lifestyles or disrupted sleep. And while we may be able to function on minimal sleep, it can harm our long term health.

Why is sleep important?

In truth, it's not fully understood why we need the amount of sleep we do, but we do know that while we rest, our body does various important processes. It spends time repairing body tissue and releasing immune-boosting chemicals. Sleep is also essential for our brain to process and store memories, and it gives our brain time to process all the information that's been thrown at it throughout the day.

If we miss the odd night's sleep or have an occasional bad night, it's not a big deal. But if we continuously get an inadequate amount of sleep, the long term effects can be quite alarming!

  1. Fatigue – regularly failing to get adequate sleep leaves us feeling sluggish and unmotivated to do things we normally would. This can affect our overall happiness and wellbeing.
  2. Decreased immunity – sleep is important for maintaining a healthy immune system, so a lack of it can weaken our defences making us more susceptible to illness, such as colds.
  3. Increased risk of diabetes – research has shown that ongoing inadequate sleep can change the way our body manages blood sugar levels, ultimately leading to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  4. Increased risk of heart disease – if we're regularly going without the right amount of sleep our heart rate can increase, along with our blood pressure, which can cause an increased risk of heart disease.

How does sleep affect weight loss?

Sleep deprivation isn't thought to directly cause us to put on weight, more that it results in behaviours that lead to weight gain. Plus, the longer you are awake, the greater the 'eating window' – that is, time available to consume more calories.

A lack of sleep has been linked to impaired appetite control and an increased desire to eat (particularly high-fat, high-sugar foods). Long term, this could lead to continued overeating and weight gain. This is borne out by another Nutracheck survey - we asked members 'Do your sleep patterns affect your food choices?' 54% said yes they were more likely to make unhealthy food choices, 25% said they ate more and only 17% were unaffected.

Researchers found that when people have had a bad night's sleep, their energy expenditure the following day is reduced. It completely stands to reason, if you're feeling tired, you're more likely to give your gym workout a miss.

How to get a good night's sleep

  1. Establish a routine. Aim to eat at a similar time each evening, and go to bed at the same time as this is important in programming your body clock.
  2. Do something relaxing before bedtime – reading, taking a bath, doing yoga or listening to music – whatever works best for you to help you wind down for a good night of undisturbed rest.
  3. Try to avoid eating a big meal, fatty or spicy foods close to bedtime as it will leave you feeling uncomfortable, making it harder to get to sleep.
  4. If you struggle to doze off, avoid watching TV or scrolling on your phone/tablet. Research has shown the bright lights from these screens can make it harder to fall asleep.
  5. Add these sleep-inducing foods to your diet

What to do if tiredness strikes

We all have one of those nights where we don't sleep well, and it can really throw us off the following day. The key to not letting this derail your diet is to always be prepared! Here are some tips...

  1. Prepare your meals in advance and take it to work it with you to avoid going to the canteen or vending machine.
  2. It may be hard, but try to squeeze some physical activity into your day where possible – it will really help. A walk outside in the fresh air on your break will help to keep you alert and also burn extra calories.
  3. Keep healthy snacks handy for when hunger strikes – a portion of nuts (weighed), fresh fruit, cereal bars, rice cakes, yogurts are all good choices.

Getting enough good quality sleep is important in many ways. And if this is something you particularly struggle with, try our suggestions. Top tip – preparation! Remember to always be prepared and have healthy options on hand to avoid those sleepless 'snaccidents' that can lead to a diet derail!

Nutritionist Sophie Edgington (ANutr), BSc Nutrition is passionate about practising evidence-based nutrition and debunking the multitude of inaccurate myths that so readily surround food and health information. Her goal is to ensure we are all able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding our health.