Too little sleep and too much weight: a dangerous duo

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

You’re walking down the street early in the morning after having been up all night completing a project for your boss. The coffee shop on the corner beckons you as always. But today, this siren song is about more than just a cup of joe. Somehow, there is an irresistible urge to buy a donut or two as well.

If you’ve ever wondered why, read on.

The amount of sleep Americans say they get every night has declined from an average of approximately 8.5 hours in the 1960s to slightly less than 7 hours today. There are probably lots of reasons why, but they likely include 24/7 occupations, prolongation of the “day” with artificial lighting, the use of electronic devices at bedtime (blue-wavelength light from these devices delays sleep onset), and the widespread belief that sleep is less of a priority compared to other activities, whether they are work- or pleasure-related.

And today, not only do more of us sleep less, but we tend to weigh more, too. More than 30% of adult Americans are now obese, compared with less than 15% of adults in the 1960s. This “obesity epidemic” also has spread to children, with approximately 17% now considered obese. This is an alarming trend because obese children are likely to become obese adults.

Is there a link between the decrease in sleep duration and the rise in obesity? Compelling evidence suggests that there is. A number of large studies involving thousands of adults have generally found that short sleepers (defined as 5 hours or less per night, but sometimes 6 hours or less) were up to 45% more likely to be obese. We don’t have as much data on children, but one study found that kids who slept less than 7.5 hours per night had a three-fold greater risk of developing obesity over a 5-year period.

Studies also demonstrate that short sleepers don’t eat healthfully. Over all, their diets have less food variety, a greater percentage of calories from snacks, and higher amounts of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Furthermore, they tend to skip the main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and also tend to snack more. These habits promote weight gain and the eventual development of obesity.

Is there a scientific explanation for the eating behavior of short sleepers? Experimental studies indicate that sleep restriction leads to abnormalities in the processing of blood sugar (glucose) and changes in hormones that control appetite. For example, the hormone ghrelin stimulates appetite, whereas the hormone leptin reduces it. With sleep restriction, levels of ghrelin rise and those of leptin fall, thus leading to an increase in hunger and appetite. Additionally, these studies have observed that sleep-restricted individuals have a greater desire for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods.

So what do the data that link inadequate sleep with weight gain tell us?

The take-home message is that getting enough sleep is one way to lower your risk for weight gain and obesity. There is a tendency to put on pounds as one grows older. Inadequate sleep will only worsen this trend. If a person is already overweight or obese, weight loss will be more difficult without adequate sleep. From a societal perspective, the obesity epidemic, with its associated increases in the rates of several chronic conditions (e.g., heart disease, diabetes), places a greater burden on the health care system and contributes to rising health care costs. Adequate sleep deserves to be included with exercise and good nutrition as one of the essentials of good health.


  1. Karina

    With respect to the saftey of eating foods from a microwave; the main issue relates to the containers used to heat the food in and not the microwave radiation, which cannot be absorbed into food as all it does is to cause water molecules to vibrate and heat. Some plastics, for instance, are more prone to the effect of “migration”. whereby some additives used in plastics are more likely to migrate to foods more than others. The main concern in the past has been in connection with plasticisers which are used to improve the flexibility of some packaging materials. As the tendency for plasticisers to migrate increases at higher temperatures, only those plastics specifically designed for oven use are suitable for cooking.To reduce any possible risk one should;* Use only microwave-safe utensils.* While some packaging films may be labelled ‘microwave-safe’ care should be taken to avoid direct contact with the food when using them to cover containers or to reheat dinners on plates.* As migration is more likely to occur into hot fatty foods, glass containers are a suitable choice for heating these products.As yet there are no standards for claims such as “microwave safe”; if you are in doubt as to the saftey of such materials contact the manufacturer or use a ceramic/glass alternative.Further, there are also many reports that indicate the loss of vitamins and certain goodness from foods that are microwaved, but the fact is that the nutritional value of food cooked in microwave is as nutritious as food prepared using conventional convection cooking methods. In fact as far as the loss of vitamins is concerned microwave cooking is preferable to boiling so as to minimise possible leaching of vitamins into the cooking water. So if anything, microwave cooking enhances mineral retention in vegetables. Further, the quality of protein, in foods cooked in a microwave is higher than those foods cooked conventionally, as far less oxidation occurs in meat cooked in a microwave. Similarly, reheating food quickly in a microwave retains more nutrients than holding food hot for long periods such as cooking and keeping food warm continually over a flame.If you would like to read some more information on the subject the following link that has been prepared in conjunction with the CSIRO, would be a good source.-

  2. salome kahonge

    Its of great illusion and sympathetic that youngsters are becoming obese at an alarming rate…to my own observation I think children are in obese state because of lack of parental control on what food to eat and when to take the food.most of the children are not well disciplined on eating manners they tend to eat any food they find attractive and delicious in their eyes regardless the fact that they are satisfied.another thing is that they take these foods in large portions..hence its my appeal to parents to control their children on what to take and when to take it.the foods to be taken must be well balanced

  3. racheal

    Great article. I always felt these two correlate but had never ventured to research and clarify my hypotheses. Thank you.

  4. Andrea Martinez

    Great article.?? Is there a correlation with the brain functioning too because of lack of sleep? I’ mm a Junior with a bunch of AP classes, and can’t seem to organize my sleep and my AP homework time. Does that mean if I keep lacking sleep I will also start performing bad in my grades?

    • Davis


      A lack of adiqit sleep directly correlates to poorer mental clarity. Thus, the answer to your question is yes. Sounds like you are doing well, so concentrate on balance in your life, so that you continue progressing towards your goals with great results.

  5. cliff gallant

    Lack of time spent sleeping would seem to do with the need of Americans to be always doing something, whether it be working or playing. No time for just being.

  6. JP

    What the article says about sleep is quite accurate and useful to know, yet very obvious. Anyone who’s experienced a change in sleep pattern would know this. My question is, if the correlation between sleep and weight is so obvious, do we really need research for such issue? Why not spend the research fund on AIDS or cancer…?

    • Davis


      Scientists study many different aspects of multiple topics. Inspiration inspires some to study cancer and others to study amounts of yeast that exist in bread. Not every scientist has the knowledge, desire, or ability to cancer or aides. One might question why you yourself are not spending every waking hour finding a cure for either? If money is the issue with this research, you could certainly send your personal monetary contributions and direct them towards cancer or aides research. So the ball is now in your court…….

  7. Erica

    Great article! I always felt the sleep and weight had some sort of direct relationship. Thank you for the information.

  8. Kathleen Barrett

    Please can you help me with my sleep pattern l seem to wake in the night about up to 5/6 times & my diet, like to no what the loaded gun is about, I’m 14st 7 lbs should be at least 9/10 stone. Don’t do alot of excerise as l have Cronic Fatigue and suffer with my back for years now, please can you help, also fineing it really hard to lose any weight because I have an over growth of yeast, I’m nearly 58 years old, don’t look it but feel it ?

    • Davis


      May I suggest 4 oz of meat and 4 oz of fresh veggies per meal and eat this 5 times a day. Only drink water and plenty of it. I would assume you are on pain meds which complicates getting you to your desired weight and sleep. You should excercise using multiple level building with stairs or walk the ramp in a parking garage. Make sure you keep a journal of your eating, sleeping, and excercise habits. If you are on pain meds, there are some wonderful pain management docs who can help you ween down over a period of time. The correct diet and excercise are the key for I too was once in your shoes.

  9. Xeena

    Sleep deprivation can make a hell of your health. And there a lot of things to take care of when dieting. I’ve lost weight too, down from 130to 96lbs with the Loaded Gun Diet and it was really easy, eating everything I love just less.