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Research: Teens who don’t sleep enough likely to consume excess sugar

By Ashtyn Asay - | Dec 28, 2021

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

New research from BYU conducted at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center says insufficient sleep also increases the risk of weight gain and other cardiometabolic diseases among teenagers because teens have worse dietary habits when they sleep less.

Everyone needs adequate sleep, but getting enough sleep each night is especially important for teens.

It is recommended that teens sleep eight to 10 hours every night in order to promote healthy physical and cognitive development, but data from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 73% of high school students get less than the recommended amount of sleep every night.

New research from Brigham Young University, conducted at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, suggests that teenagers who get inadequate sleep are more likely to consume more sugary foods, which could lead to health problems down the line.

Poor sleep among teenagers has been associated with mental health issues as well as behavioral problems and, according to this new research, poor sleep can increase the risk of weight gain and other cardiometabolic issues among teens.

“I’ve always been really interested in what happens if teens don’t get the sleep they should be getting and how we can get teens to sleep more,” said Kara Duraccio, BYU clinical and developmental psychology professor and lead author of the study. “There’s been a good amount of research over the past several years that has shown that teens and kids who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to develop obesity later, but we don’t really know why. We thought ‘maybe it has something to do with changes in the way that they’re eating,'”

Researchers studied the sleeping and eating patterns of 93 teenagers while they spent 6.5 hours in bed for five nights, and again while they spent 9.5 hours in bed for five nights.

“We picked this because we wanted to mimic the real-world sleeping habits of teens during the school year. We know that teens, when it’s a school night, are notoriously not getting the sleep that they should be getting, and it’s kind of close to that six and a half, seven-hour mark,” Durracio said. “Then we had them sleep the next week for nine and a half hours per night for five nights because we wanted to have a condition where they’re sleeping as much as they should.”

As the researchers assessed the nutritional value of foods the teens were eating they found that although both groups of teens consumed roughly the same amount of food, the teens who spent 6.5 hours in bed per night were more likely to consume more carbs and added sugars than the teens who got a healthy amount of sleep.

The teens who didn’t get enough sleep ate fewer fruits and vegetables than those who slept longer and consumed more foods that were likely to spike blood sugar fast, likely in an attempt to increase energy levels. These changes in diet were typically seen after 9 p.m.

The added sugar consumed by the teens who slept less amounted to about 12 grams of extra sugar each day. Over the course of a 180 night school year, the extra 12 grams a day could result in teens who don’t sleep enough consuming 4.5 extra pounds of sugar each year compared to their well-rested counterparts.

“This is really important because we know that teens who are regularly consuming more high-carb high added-sugar foods, or foods that spike that blood sugar quickly are going to be at greater risk for developing obesity or other cardiometabolic diseases,” Durracio said. “Every aspect of their life can become harder when they’re not getting the sleep that they need.”

Durracio recommends that teen wellness interventions focus more on adequate sleep as a baseline for building healthier habits overall.

“I think it’s really important that we are focusing on promoting good sleep,” Durracio said. “When we’re trying to promote healthy weight we always focus on eating well and getting enough exercise, and we’re not incorporating sleep recommendations in these interventions when, in reality, we know that teens who sleep more are more likely to exercise and are more likely to eat well.”

Durracio will delve further into the complexities of teen sleeping patterns with a new study this spring, where she will examine the importance of the timing of sleep.

“What I want to know is what’s more important? Is it how much sleep they’re getting, or is it sleeping in a way that’s aligned with what their body wants to do,” Durracio said.


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