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We all know that sleep is important for our overall health. That’s no surprise. But, a new study has found that sleeping less than seven hours a night may lead to weight gain. 

In the study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers reported that nearly 20,000 American adults showed a link between not meeting recommended sleep guidelines and eating more snacks, carbohydrates, added sugar, fats, and caffeine.

Although most adults consumed about the same amount of sodium-laden snacks, sweet treats, and non-alcoholic drinks, those getting less sleep tended to eat more snack calories per day overall.

Researchers analyzed data taken from 19,650 U.S. adults between the ages of 20 and 60 who had participated from 2007 to 2018 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants were asked questions regarding their average amount of sleep during the workweek and their dietary habits within a 24-hour period. 

Christopher Taylor, Ohio State University (OSU) professor of medical dietetics at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and senior author of the study, said in a news release, “At night, we’re drinking our calories and eating a lot of convenience foods. Not only are we not sleeping when we stay up late, but we’re doing all these obesity-related behaviors: lack of physical activity, increased screen time, food choices that we’re consuming as snacks and not as meals,” he added. “So it creates this bigger impact of meeting or not meeting sleep recommendations.”

The researchers divided participants into those who did or did not meet sleep recommendations based on their reporting. Then, they used the  U.S. Department of Agriculture databases to estimate participants’ snack-related nutrient intake, categorizing all snacks into food groups and establishing three snacking time frames.

It turns out that more than 95% ate at least one snack a day and more than half of snacking calories among all participants came from two categories, including soda, energy drinks, chips, pretzels, cookies, and pastries. The participants who did not meet sleep recommendations were more likely to eat a morning snack and ate more snacks with higher calories and less nutritional value throughout the day.

“Meeting sleep recommendations helps us meet that specific need for sleep-related to our health, but is also tied to not doing the things that can harm health,” said Taylor, a registered dietitian. “The longer we’re awake, the more opportunities we have to eat. And at night, those calories are coming from snacks and sweets. Every time we make those decisions, we’re introducing calories and items related to increased risk for chronic disease, and we’re not getting whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.”

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society recommends that adults sleep seven hours or longer per night regularly.

Less sleep is associated with a higher risk of health problems, including weight gain and obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that poor sleep can also be linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and other chronic health conditions.

Not getting enough sleep is no joke. So make sure you’re well-rested and step away from the potato chips!