Junk Food More Appealing When You’re Tired

By Amir Khan on June 11, 2012 12:22 PM EDT

Potato Chips
The sleepier you are, the better that snack looks to you, according to new research (Photo: Creative Commons)

The sleepier you are, the better that snack looks to you, according to new research presented at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies annual meeting in Boston on Sunday.

Unhealthy foods look more appetizing to sleep-deprived brains, researchers said. When they examined areas of the brain that were most active when people looked at healthy or unhealthy foods, the researchers found that the reward center of the brain was extremely active when sleep-deprived people looked at the unhealthy foods.

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"We found regions associated with reward and motivation -- those that are involved with addiction and pleasure-seeking behaviors -- were more strongly activated in the short-sleep phase," Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a research associate at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center and an assistant professor at Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition, told HealthDay.

Previous studies have linked being sleep-deprived to weight gain, though the mechanism has been unclear. In order to better understand, the researchers conducted brain scans on people's reactions to food after normal sleep (8 hours) and shortened sleep (4 hours).

"People went for foods like pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, and cake," St-Onge told CNN.

Researchers said they suspect the brain looks at the unhealthy food as a potential fuel source that can keep it going when it's tired.

"We hypothesize that the restricted-sleep brain reacts to food stimuli as though it [were] food deprived," St-Onge told CNN.

She also said that when you're sleep deprived you have less self-control and are more likely to indulge in unhealthy habits.

"Your guard is somewhat down when you're tired and sleep deprived," she told HealthDay. "Even though you know you probably shouldn't eat certain foods, when you're tired you might just decide to go for it."

Samantha Heller, a registered dietician with the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., told HealthDay the findings did not surprise her.

"It makes sense that when you are fatigued, your body would want calorie-dense foods that give you quick energy," she said. "In an evolutionary sense, doing so would provide an advantage because you do get a momentary lift when you eat."

St-Onge said in order to combat the late-night craves, keep healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, in your office and office.

"This is especially important if you're trying to lose weight," she said, "because you may choose the wrong foods if you don't get enough sleep."

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