Don’t just blame food: lack of sleep increases obesity risk, study suggests

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Good quality sleep is a key element of a healthy lifestyle and should be encouraged, says the British Nutrition Foundation ©GettyImages/miodragIgnjatovic
Good quality sleep is a key element of a healthy lifestyle and should be encouraged, says the British Nutrition Foundation ©GettyImages/miodragIgnjatovic

Related tags Obesity Sleep Breakfast

Adults and children are not getting enough sleep, putting them at risk of poor diets and obesity, warns the British Nutrition Foundation.

Over 40% of UK adults slept less than the recommended seven hours, while 32% of primary school children and 70% of secondary school children failed to sleep the suggested nine hours, according to a survey by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

Public Health England wants to see a 20% calorie reduction across the industry by 2024, and the UK government is proposing banning adverts for HFSS foods on TV and online before 9pm in an effort to combat childhood obesity.

Poor sleep quality, however, is linked to less healthy food choices and increased risk of obesity, according to the BNF.

“Lack of sleep is one of the many factors that can affect what we eat and our long-term risk of obesity,” ​Bridget Benelam, ​Nutrition Communications Manager at the BNF, told FoodNavigator.

“We don’t know exactly why a lack of or poor quality sleep influences our food choices but it may be due to changes in appetite, being awake for longer and also that we may feel less like being active. With only a third of children and 29% of adults reporting that they felt well rested when they woke up on the day of our survey, it’s clear that many of us could be sleeping better.”

The research surveyed 6,018 primary and secondary school students aged 7-16 years, and 1,576 adults from across the UK, and asked questions about their night time routines, sleep, and eating and drinking habits on the previous night.

Most (80%) adults, and 44% of secondary school children, woke up at least once the previous night.

Screen time before bedtime sabotages sleep and dietary choices

The survey hinted that using screens before bed was a factor in poor sleep. Nearly 60% of secondary school students, 50% of adults, and 49% of primary school students said that on the night of the survey they used screens immediately before bed. One in 10 secondary school students and one in six adults, reported drinking a caffeinated drink before bed.

Dr Lucy Chambers, Senior Scientist at BNF said: “The implications of a bad night’s sleep can go much further than feeling tired. Where lack of, and disturbed, sleep can lead to both adults and young people feeling grumpy and irritable, regular poor quality sleep can have a negative impact on dietary choices, including higher intakes of calories and more frequent snacking on less healthy foods.”

Alcohol is not the tonic for good sleep

One in 10 adults who reported drinking before bed fell asleep within 10 minutes, compared to 61% who did not consume alcohol. Nearly half of them woke more than once in the night, compared to only 38% of the non-drinkers.

While most adults complained of not feeling well rested when they woke up, a greater proportion were those who drank before bed.

Chambers added: “With more and more emerging research linking lack of sleep to poor dietary choices, and the burgeoning obesity crisis in the UK, we are keen to place a new focus on sleep this year – looking into how well we’re actually all sleeping, and providing advice and resources to help improve sleeping habits.”

Poor sleep means a missed breakfast

The survey looked at how people start their day. A quarter of secondary schools students, and one in 10 primary students, had no breakfast. Over a third (34%) of adults skipped breakfast (although the survey did not take into account those who ate breakfast at work).

Of those who did have breakfast, only a quarter of adults (24%) and 17% of secondary school children ate fruit or vegetables. A quarter of secondary school students, and 14% of adults, drank no fluids before starting work or school.

Chambers added: “Breakfast helps to get the day off to a good start by providing the energy and nutrients the body needs for good health and it’s also a great opportunity to make a start on your five a day. It is recommended that we should all be consuming around 6-8 unsweetened drinks every day to keep hydrated. In particular, it is important to encourage children to drink fluids regularly as it is not always something that they remember themselves.”

BNF Healthy Eating Week 2019 is taking place from 10-14 June 2019. Visit here for more information​ 

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