Food and Behaviour Research

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Small changes in children's sleep lead to significant changes in eating habits, shows study

by University of Otago


Mild sleep deprivation may play a role in paediatric obesity by increasing caloric intake, particularly from noncore and ultra processed foods.


This rigorous study, involving 100 children aged 8-12 years whose bedtimes were systematically altered to influence the amount of sleep they obtained, showed that when sleep-deprived, they ate considerably more - mostly after 5pm.

What's more, virtually all of the extra energy (calories) that the children consumed when they were sleep-deprived came from highly processed and nutrient-poor foods such as cakes, biscuits and chips/crisps.

These results are similar to those already found in adults - showing that appetite and cravings for ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats increase when they are deprived of sufficient sleep.

Previous research also indicates that these links between inadequate sleep and unhealthy dietary habits are likely to be mutually reinforcing - as causal effects operate in both directions.

Thus in addition to poor sleep increasing poor dietary choices, the very foods and diets that sleep deprivation encourages - high in sugar and 'refined carbs' and/or unhealthy fats - can impair sleep via many potential mechanisms.

For details of this research please see:

For more information on the links between diet and sleep in both children and adults, see:

And for evidence that relative deficiences of omega-3 fatty acids (a key characteristic of modern western-type diets high in ultra-processed foods) may be a common but neglected risk factor, see:

15/03/2023 - Medical Xpress

Just an hour less sleep a night affects what and how children eat, University of Otago research shows.
The study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and led by Ph.D. candidates Rosie Jackson and Silke Morrison, of the Department of Medicine, found children eat differently when they sleep less—even with as little as 40 minutes a night less—with substantial increases in energy intake and decreases in diet quality.
Jackson says a lot of time and effort is spent trying to improve food intake through dietary measures, but this study suggests that "maybe we could just look at sleep."
The study involved 100 Dunedin children aged between eight and 12. Their bedtime was brought forward by one hour for one week and pushed back an hour for another week (with one week between), and their sleep, dietary intake and desire to eat different foods was measured.
The children ate considerably more energy when they were sleep deprived, mostly after 5pm, with all of the extra energy coming from non-core and highly processed foods such as cakes, biscuits and chips.
Parents of the participants also reported that their child seemed to eat both more and less in response to their emotions when they were tired, and they also felt they parented slightly differently around food when their child had less sleep.
"It may be that during sleep restriction, children showed emotional undereating when offered less desirable, healthier foods—which are often lower in energy—yet exhibited emotional overeating when around highly palatable energy-dense foods, often consumed by people who are considered emotional overeaters."
The difference in calorie intake—the equivalent of about two to three biscuits a day—is clinically significant and could result in excess weight over time if not counter balanced by increased energy output, she says.
"Although this seems small at the individual level, if a child ate this in excess every day, it would be enough to explain several kilos of extra weight per year—and therefore enough to explain the link between not getting enough sleep and higher body weight. You only need a small difference in energy intake and expenditure each day to lead to weight gain over time."
Eating behaviors are thought to develop early in life and remain stable through childhood.
"However, our study suggests that sleep may be one factor that can influence eating behaviors in children," she says.
"It could be as simple as just having more time in the day to eat, but our data also show that food and emotions are tied together when thinking about sleep in children. Getting a good night's sleep is important for so many aspects of our lives, including what and how we eat."