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Here's Exactly How To Outsmart Those Junk Food Cravings When You're Tired

February 21, 2017

You've been up late every night this week because you've got a big deadline at work. Maybe you stayed out late with friends, dancing or enjoying a few cocktails when you knew you had an early morning. We've all done it. We push through with a little less sleep with little regard for how it might affect our health—or our food choices.

Have you ever noticed that a short stint of sleep (less than a full seven to eight hours) caused you to crave unhealthy, calorie-dense foods the next day? Maybe you had to stop off for a sugary latte or high-carbohydrate breakfast food to help you make it through the morning. Or maybe you're hitting that midday slump and need a high-calorie snack or sweet treat to make it through the afternoon.

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Studies are showing that you're not alone.

An article published in the International Journal of Obesity1 looked at two groups of people who over the course of five nights slept for four hours versus nine hours. Those in the group who slept only four hours showed increased activity in the pleasure centers of their brain when shown unhealthy foods like pepperoni pizza, doughnuts, and candy. This means that sacrificing your sleep could lead to poor food choices the next day.

What's worse? If you continue skimping on you zzz's you could continue the vicious cycle leading to weight gain. Another study showed that the fewer the hours of sleep, the greater number of cravings for high-calorie, unhealthy foods. The more sleep-deprived you are, the more weight you may gain.

If you're finding that you are sleeping enough but still having a dip in energy midday and need an unhealthy pick-me-up, blood sugar might be the culprit. If your blood sugar dips due to high-carb, high-sugar earlier in the day, you may find yourself craving sweets later in the day. Stress can also affect your blood sugar, and can be another reason you need a treat to make it through the rest of the day.

So how can you get by when you just can’t get a full night of sleep?

1. Focus on a high-protein breakfast instead of a "pick-me-up."

Try a plant-based protein smoothie or eggs with veggies instead of grabbing a bagel or a doughnut. Plan ahead the night before if you know you might need a few extra winks in the morning.

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2. Keep a steady flow of protein throughout the day.

Are you falling asleep on your desk in the afternoon? Make sure your lunch and snacks contain a balance of healthy carbohydrates (like starchy veggies and fruit) and protein or healthy fats (like lean meat, nuts, and seeds). Protein helps to stabilize your blood sugar and minimize cravings for unhealthy foods.

3. Don't let it persist.

If there are a few days when you just can't get a good night's sleep, be sure it doesn't go on too long. Make the time to cut off work at least an hour before bedtime and save the late nights for the weekend when you know you can catch up.

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Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS
Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS
Board Certified Nutrition Specialist

Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS is a Doctor of Clinical Nutrition and Board Certified Nutrition Specialist. She specializes in functional nutrition to support gut health, mood and mental health, and alcohol use. As a sobriety advocate, she regularly offers programs to help engage others on changing their relationship with alcohol through nutritional practices and offers one-on-one individual coaching. Scheller has over 12 years of training and experience in nutrition and functional medicine and has worked with both individuals and large organizations building nutrition programs to scale. She is also the founder of Condition Nutrition, a nutrition consultancy working with start up organizations in personalized nutrition, supplements, and health-tech.