Weight Management

6 Tips for Eating Your Way Through a Sleep-Deprived Day

Do your clients get enough sleep? Do they complain of fatigue and struggle with cravings? Well, they’re not alone! Up to 70 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders and intermittent sleep problems.

We all know sleep is vital to health, but recent research has provided a better understanding of how sleepless nights can directly impact food choices and nutrition. According to a study published in May 2017, people who don’t get enough sleep eat, on average, 385 kcal more than usual with significantly less protein and more fat. These individuals also experienced a heightened motivation to seek food for reward (ie, that donut and sweet coffee drink in the morning look more tempting than normal, and one bite of a double cheeseburger with fries feels like they’ve won the lottery.).

Why, you ask? Well, there are multiple reasons, but one culprit is a change in appetite-regulating hormones. When people don’t get enough sleep, the hormone leptin, which signals feelings of fullness, decreases, and the hormone ghrelin, which signals feelings of hunger, increases—translation: overeating.

So you can see how easy it is for clients to get into a vicious cycle when it comes to not getting enough sleep and overeating. They’re tired from not sleeping; their appetite and cravings increase; they overeat and/or make poor food choices that are likely high in sugar and processed carbs that cause their insulin and glucose levels to spike and then crash, which leaves them more tired and fatigued. And the cycle keeps going and going.

Bottom Line: If clients don’t get adequate sleep for whatever reason (eg, insomnia, work, children, aging parents), they’ll likely be tempted to eat more and more unhealthful foods than normal. So, let’s break the cycle and use food as fuel to get your clients through even the worst sleep-deprived days. The following tips can help.

1. Eat a healthful breakfast within about an hour of waking.

  • Boosts mood, metabolism, and cognitive function.
  • Avoid blood sugar highs and lows by avoiding processed carbohydrates and added sugars. Instead, suggest clients opt for a balanced breakfast with nutrient-dense carbohydrates and adequate protein and healthful fats that will sustain energy and power them through the morning. Consume protein from eggs, plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, lean meats, and healthful protein powders; healthful fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and nut butters; and nutrient-dense carbohydrates from whole fruit, steel-cut oats, sweet potatoes, and veggies.

2. Rehydrate.

  • Dehydration can cause fatigue, so encourage clients to drink more water to help them feel more alert and awake.
  • Recommend clients start their day with a glass of water and continue drinking throughout the day. Suggest they keep a water bottle with them at all times to help make this an easier habit.
  • Bonus: ↑ water = ↑ bathroom breaks = ↑ movement and ↓ chances of falling asleep at their desk.

3. Sip (or sniff) coffee, but not too much.

  • Caffeine temporarily interferes with the chemical signals of sleepiness. The attention-boosting and alertness effects may not kick in for 30 minutes so recommend clients time their cup of joe accordingly.
  • Not a coffee drinker? Can’t or don’t want to consume caffeine? Simply breathe in the scent of coffee or opt for decaf. Research suggests the aroma of coffee beans alone may alter the activity of genes in the brain and reduce the stress of sleep deprivation.
  • But warn clients not to drink too much or too late in the day. Since coffee is a stimulant, it provides false energy. So tell clients not to let coffee replace healthful meals or snacks, which can provide real, longer-lasting energy. To lessen its effect on sleep, avoid having caffeine from all sources after noon.

4. Eat a light lunch.

  • Avoid heavy, high-fat, rich meals at lunch and dinner.
  • Enjoy a lighter, more balanced lunch. Aim for 1/2 a plate of nonstarchy vegetables, 1/4 plate of protein, 1/4 plate (or less) of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, plus a little healthful fat. Chicken, beef, pork, fish, plain Greek yogurt, eggs, tofu, tempeh, beans, and lentils are good protein choices. Consume nonstarchy vegetables such as greens, broccoli, green beans, asparagus, pepper, onions, carrots, and cauliflower; nutrient-dense carbohydrates from sweet potatoes, winter squash, quinoa, beans, lentils, wild rice, and whole fruit; and healthful fats from nuts and seeds, avocado, olive oil, and olives.

5. Have a strategic afternoon snack (if needed).

  • If clients start to feel more sluggish in the afternoon, recommend they reach for a strategic snack instead of sugar or caffeine.
  • Avoid sugary, high-carb snacks, as they will drain clients of their energy due to the spike and crash in blood sugar. Instead, suggest they choose a snack that combines a nutrient-dense carbohydrate with a lean protein or healthful fat. Nutrient-dense carbohydrates from whole fruit, vegetables, whole grain bread or crackers, air-popped popcorn are good choices. Protein and healthful fats from cheese, hummus, nut butters, plain Greek yogurt, nuts and seeds, guacamole, and hard-boiled eggs also are good choices.

6. Prepare food in advance.

  • Suggest clients learn about batch cooking. They can read more about it here.
  • Preparing food in advance can help them feel more organized and ready to tackle the day as well as avoid those less healthful foods that are more tempting when they’re sleep deprived.
  • Recommend they prepare their food the night before or batch cook an entire week’s worth of food on Sunday or another day of the week.

For more sleep-inducing tips to share with clients, read 7 Nutrition Strategies for a Good Night’s Sleep.

— Ashley Bailey, MS, RDN, LDN, is a nutritionist at SAS Institute, Inc, where she provides a variety of nutrition services and programs to assist company employees and family members with their nutritional needs and concerns. She’s also a certified biofeedback instructor, holds a Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management and contributes to the SAS Life blog.

5 Comment

  1. Excellent advice.
    I am not a health professional, just a “senior” stroke survivor (7 years)/US citizen/permanent resident of Japan with a family member who is an RN doing in home geriatric care in America. I’m a graduate of the T. Colin Campbell Certificate Program on Plant Based Nutrition through eCornell.
    These tips look very helpful and I’ll refer to them to help my wife and I deal with sometimes poor sleep patterns. For me, I modify the word “carbohydrate” with the words “whole food” or “Non-refined” (like most of the foods that are recommended here, such as oats). I also eliminated all animal flesh, dairy products, (added salt, oil, and sugar) from my diet.

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