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Sweet Dreams: Teens Eat More Sugar When They Don’t Get Enough Sleep, Says Study

Lack of sleep is linked to depression, obesity and poor academic performance, say researchers.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important for everybody but especially so for adolescents, with a new study showing how insufficient sleep leads growing teens to eat more sugar and carbohydrates.

In the era of smartphones, social media and endless online streaming services, a larger number of teenagers are not getting enough pillow time. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 73 percent of high school students get less than the recommended eight to 10 hours of nightly sleep. Lack of sleep has long been linked to obesity, behavioral problems and poor mental health as well as inadequate performance at school.

A new study by Brigham Young University in cooperation with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio concluded that when teens don’t get enough sleep, they are at risk of weight gain and other cardio-metabolic conditions.

“Shortened sleep increases the risk for teens to eat more carbs and added sugars and drink more sugar-sweetened beverages than when they are getting a healthy amount of sleep,” Dr. Kara Duraccio of Brigham Young University said.

Teens who sleep less than recommended end up consuming more carbohydrates and sugary drinks, according to new research. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Researchers examined the eating and sleeping habits of 93 teenagers during short sleep, or spending six and a half hours each night in bed for one week, and what is considered healthy sleep, spending nine and a half hours each night in bed for another week. The study also measured the types, calories, macronutrients and glycemic load (the rise in blood sugar levels) of the foods the teens ate.

During the short sleep session, the teens had consumed more sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks than they did when they got healthy sleep. This usually happened after 9 p.m. Teenagers ate fewer vegetables and fruits throughout the day after short sleep sessions when compared to healthy sleep.

“What’s interesting is that getting less sleep didn’t cause teens to eat more than their peers getting healthy sleep; both groups consumed roughly the same amounts of calories of food. But getting less sleep caused teens to eat more junk,” Duraccio said.

She and her fellow researchers believe that when teenagers are tired, they seek quick energy to keep them going until bedtime, therefore the preference for sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods. During short-sleep sessions, teenagers took in 12 extra grams of sugar every day. Because most don’t get enough sleep during the estimated 180 nights in an academic year, 12 extra grams of sugar can result in 4.5 pounds of added sugar each year.

The results were published in the medical journal SLEEP.

“We know that pediatric obesity is an epidemic, and we’ve focused on a lot of interventions to try and address it, but sleep is not one of the things that researchers tend to focus on,” Duraccio said.

“If we are really trying to discover preventative strategies or interventions to increase optimal weight in teens, getting enough and well-timed sleep should be at the forefront of our efforts,” she added.

The issue is complicated by early start times for classes in many school systems, resulting in habitually short and ill-timed sleeping patterns. Duraccio said it is common for many busy people to skimp on sleep when posed with multiple tasks.

“We don’t recognize that getting enough sleep helps you accomplish your to-do list better. Sleep health should be incorporated into all prevention and intervention modules for child obesity,” she said.

In a study published in Sleep Medicine in 2017, American teens were found to trade sleep for time on their electronic devices. Researchers analyzed data from the activities of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and showed that the number who were logging more screen time and losing more sleep rose dramatically between 2009 and 2015. In 2015, more than four of every 10 teens slept less than seven hours each night, an increase of about 17 percent compared to 2009.

Edited by Richard Pretorius and Kristen Butler

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