Sleep impacts what you eat, and what you eat impacts your sleep.

By Judes Scharman Draughon, MS, RDN, LD

Have you noticed how difficult it is to resist nutrient-empty junk food when you’re tired? Or how much easier it is to make positive food choices when you’re well rested?

When you have energy from a good night’s sleep, you tend to make wiser, more nutritious food choices. Sleep directly affects the body’s muscle and body fat levels. Chronic inflammation,1 insulin resistance,2 and obesity3 all decrease with more sleep.4

Sleep, Muscle, & Body Fat Are Linked

Skipping out on adequate sleep can lower the body’s muscle mass5 and can result in extra visceral fat around the middle.6 During sleep—particularly REM sleep—your body repairs and builds muscle while also breaking down fat for energy. Without enough quality sleep, you’re unable to build as much of that valuable muscle or burn as much fat.

If you are not sleeping, you are also likelier to eat late into the night, compounding the problem and leading to more empty caloric intake and less of an opportunity for your body fat stores to be used.7

One study conducted at the University of Chicago compared body fat percentage with sleep amount in the same participants on a restricted diet. Participants lost 55% less fat and 60% more lean tissue when they slept only 5.5 hours per night.8

Hormones Provides Hints About Why

Several studies have investigated why we tend to eat more when tired. Lack of sleep often causes hormone imbalances that affect us negatively. These studies have found a strong relationship between the activity of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and the number of hours of sleep. Without enough sleep, leptin (the fullness hormone) levels drop, while ghrelin levels increase.9, 10

Given the hormone imbalance, it’s not surprising that we eat more when skimping on sleep and significantly increase the number of calories we consume. A meta-analysis found that sleep-deprived individuals ate almost 400 extra calories per day compared with people who got enough sleep. Researchers reported the sleep-deprived individuals ate higher fat, lower protein foods and were prone to food cravings.11

Stress hormones are also impacted by sleep habits. Deep sleep neutralizes stress hormones, but lack of sleep triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, increasing the risk of heart disease, belly fat, and muscle breakdown.12

Caving to Cravings

Increased hunger hormone levels don’t just make you hungrier. They also make you crave junk food. Researchers found the desire for high-carbohydrate, high-calorie foods increased by a whopping 45% in individuals experiencing high levels of ghrelin.13

Brain imaging studies have found that the reward-seeking portion of the brain is stimulated by fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, increasing the desire for refined-carbohydrate foods that spike blood sugars and invite fat-promoting insulin.14

One of these studies found that completely sleep-deprived participants showed diminished activity in the critical thinking, decision-making part of the brain, as well as greater activity in pleasure-seeking areas.15 It appears the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to act on your food cravings and eat more processed foods.

[RELATED: How Does Nutrition Impact Sleep Disorders?]

Food to Snooze

The relationship between sleep and diet is reciprocal. Your diet influences the quality of sleep, too.

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that diet can influence sleep. This study reported that eating less fiber, more saturated fat, and more sugar—even over the course of just one day—is associated with a lighter, less restorative sleep with more disruptions.

This study reported that more fiber intake predicted more time spent in deep sleep. More saturated fat was associated with less deep, slow-wave slumber. Greater sugar intake also was associated with an increased number of arousals from sleep.

This randomized crossover study had participants spend 9 hours of sleep in a lab. They slept for 7 hours and 35 minutes on average per night after three days of controlled eating and after one day of eating whatever they wanted.

The study also found that participants fell asleep 12 minutes faster after eating mixed meals lower in saturated fat and higher in protein.16

Importance of Fiber

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) assessed the nutritional status and health of people in the United States. In 2007–2008, over 12,000 participants with the best sleep habits had the highest fiber intake, whereas those who slept 5 to 6 hours or more than 9 hours had lower fiber intake. Participants who slept less than 5 hours per night had the lowest fiber intake.17

Women need 25 g of fiber per day and men need 38 g. Four servings of whole grains, or five to six servings of produce equates to approximately 25 g of fiber. Prioritizing eating your recommended amount of fiber daily may help you get a better night’s rest.

Natural Versus Added Sugar

There is a difference between natural and added sugars. Natural sugars are found in whole foods, including fruit and vegetables. Prioritize intake of natural sugars over intake of refined, processed foods that contain added sugars (refined sugars are in foods such as crackers, condiments, baked goods, etc). The natural sugars promote healthy sleep while the added sugars may deteriorate the quality of your sleep.

The NHANES 2007–2008 analysis found that those who slept 5 to 6 hours per night had higher refined/added sugar intake than the best sleepers.17 Consistent with this finding, the NHANES 2005–2010 analysis reported that higher total sugar intake was associated with those who slept 6 hours or less per night. However, it’s unclear if or how sugar impacts sleep, since those sleeping less than 5 hours had lower sugar intake than normal sleepers in the NHANES 2007–2008.18


Protein intake helps you stay fuller and more satisfied for longer. It also helps to better control the appetite.

Protein-rich foods (such as fish, lean meat, nuts and seeds) have also been linked to sleep duration and sleep quality. In NHANES 2007–2008, participants who slept less than 7 hours per night had a lower total protein diet.17 A study evaluating 410 young adult women reported less than 6 hours of sleep for those participants consuming a lower protein, higher carbohydrate diet compared to normal-sleeping participants.19

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, olive oil, seafood, Greek plain yogurt, and small amounts of high-quality cheeses. Research shows a correlation between the Mediterranean diet and health-promoting sleep. Individuals who followed a Mediterranean diet experienced less insomnia and achieved healthier sleep durations in several studies. There is evidence to suggest that the high fiber, low saturated fat of the Mediterranean diet may be responsible for these observations.20, 21

Operation Shut Down

Maintaining healthy eating can truly help you become a better sleeper. Eat nourishing, whole foods to help obtain the best night’s rest. Focus on eating protein-rich (low in saturated fat) foods, fiber-rich foods, and on minimizing added sugar.

Judes Scharman Draughon, MS, RDN, LD

And vice versa—when you sleep well, you’re more likely to maintain these healthy eating patterns. Adequate sleep encourages higher levels of satiety hormone levels and increases fat-burning and muscle-building activity. The better you manage your sleep, the better you’ll be able to manage a healthy lifestyle.

Judith “Judes” Scharman Draughon, MS, RDN, LD, author of 12 Fixes to Healthy: A Wellness Plan for Life, is passionate about her quest to empower people to make small changes that make a big difference. The 12 Fixes in her evidence-based wellness plan and book help strengthen immune defenses, decrease risk of disease, improve gut health, lose excess fat weight, and slow cognitive decline.

Judes inspires many with her high-energy nutrition presentations, workshops, and seminars. She is the owner of Nutrition Educational Solutions LLC but is known as “Foods With Judes.” In addition to Judes’ corporate wellness work, she taught at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute and held various clinical dietitian positions during her career. She is the mother of four adult children and resides in North Carolina with her husband. Learn more:

Photo 138627762 © Oksana


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