KEY POINTS

  • Researchers checked whether shorter sleep could affect teens' dietary consumption
  • Short sleep made teens consume more sugar and carbs
  • Health efforts should promote "optimal sleep" to improve healthy diet habits, researchers said

How can lack of sleep affect teenagers' diet and health? It increases their intake of sugar and carbs, a new study has found.

Getting ample sleep is especially important for teenagers since they are still developing. However, the majority of them actually don't get enough sleep, with their busy academic and extracurricular schedules as well as early school start times. In fact, some 73% of high school students tend to get less than the recommended amount of sleep each night, Brigham Young University (BYU) noted in a news release, citing data from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For their new study, published in the journal SLEEP, researchers examined whether shorter sleep actually affects the teens' dietary consumption, from the amount and type of food they eat to the timing of when they consume these food items.

To do this, researchers compared the sleep and eating patterns of 93 teenagers during five nights of short sleep (6.5-hour sleep opportunity) and five nights of healthy sleep (9.5-hour sleep opportunity). Each of the adolescents recorded data on their food intake.

The researchers found that the teens ate more food items that tended to spike blood sugar quickly during short sleep conditions than when they were in healthy sleep conditions, BYU noted. They consumed more sugary drinks, carbohydrates, added sugars and food items that have a higher glycemic load while eating fewer fruits and vegetables. These differences emerged after 9 p.m.

"These experimental findings suggest that adolescents who have insufficient sleep exhibit dietary patterns that may increase the risk for negative weight and cardiometabolic outcomes," the researchers wrote. "Future health promotion efforts should include promoting optimal sleep to increase healthy dietary habits."

"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," the study's lead author, Dr. Kara McRae Duraccio of BYU, said in the university news release. "We suspect that tired teens are looking for quick bursts of energy to keep them going until they can go to bed, so they're seeking out foods that are high in carbs and added sugars."

In the U.S., the prevalence of obesity in children and adolescents is "too high," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For instance, data from 2017 to 2018 showed that the prevalence of obesity among young people aged 2 to 19 was 19.3%, affecting 14.4 million children and adolescents.

According to Duraccio, there are many interventions in place to address the epidemic, but sleep is actually not something that researchers are focusing on.

"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," Duraccio said.

"Sleep health should be incorporated into all prevention and intervention modules for child obesity," she added.

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