The link between sleep and weight loss


Haven’t been sleeping well for months? Then you might notice your jeans feel a little tighter. As science uncovers more about the links between appetite, hormones, rest and stress, it’s becoming clear that a spike in the scales can be caused by multiple life factors.

Even if you’re a meditating, macrobiotic, morning jogger, other less obvious lifestyle habits could still be causing you to add on the kilos. The following hidden weight traps may be completely slipping under your radar and leading to unexpected weight gain in unexpected ways.


1. A spare tyre from stress

“Tension is what you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” —Chinese proverb

Too wired to sleep? Living on the run? All that stress can give you a jelly belly and not just from exhaustion making you hungrier. “When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol, which makes you store fat in case of famine,” says David-Cameron Smith, Associate Professor in Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne.

“This fat gain can become concentrated in your most active fat cells around the abdomen, which are highly sensitive to stress hormone receptors. Fat storage here is the most dangerous because it drains quickly to the liver, combining with cholesterol to enter your bloodstream, increasing your risk of heart disease down the track.”

Health tips: Kick back a little more (yes, you can find the time). Snatch one five-minute break every hour — even if you just stretch or close your eyes. Better still, block out half an hour quality me-time every day to read a book, listen to music or sit under a tree in the park (no, it doesn’t count if you’re sitting under the swaying branches stressing about work or your mortgage).

Engage in daily meditation or progressive relaxation (systematically tense and relax all the muscles in your body while breathing slowly and deeply). Do some exercise to boost the release of brain chemicals called beta-endorphins, which improve mood and promote calm. Finally, minimise foods such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol, which cause a spike in adrenal stress chemicals such as cortisol.


2. Slumber blunders

“The beginning of health is sleep.” — Irish proverb

Sleeping less than six hours a night can cause a 40 per cent drop in sensitivity to insulin, which bumps up your risk of weight gain and diabetes type 2, according to research at the University of Chicago. This reduced insulin response occurred in otherwise lean and healthy young men and women after only three nights of less sleep. Don’t underestimate the fall-out. Studies suggest that people who sleep five hours or less a night weigh more, particularly in middle age.

Health tips: Turn your bedroom into a sleep shrine complete with calming scents (eg a sprinkling of lavender oil on your pillow), candlelight before bed and heavy curtains to signal to your body that it’s rest time. Improve your sleep routine by rising and retiring at the same time each day. Don’t exercise, drink caffeine or eat a large meal after 8pm, as this can cause alertness later when you should be in the land of nod. Avoid alcohol, which can interrupt the sleep cycle, and make sure you remove distractions such as television and cats. Suffering insomnia? Try slow, rhythmic breathing and visualisation when you slip between the sheets.


3. Protein protest

“Hunger is the best cook.” — German proverb

Hungry often? Your body might be trying to tell you you’re not eating enough protein. Recent research at the University of Washington School of Medicine has found that increasing protein intake helps people feel full for longer, assists with weight loss and increases their levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone that tells us our bellies are full.

Health tips: Have a protein hit at every meal. Tuck in to an egg or sardines or tofu at breakfast; tuna or half a cup of beans at lunch; and fish, chicken, red meat or tempeh at dinner. Between meals, good high-protein snacks include low-fat yoghurt, homous, cottage cheese and nuts.


4. Supersizing Your Serves

“One who knows the limit knows true happiness.” — Chinese proverb

Over the past decade, our fast food and snack food have undergone a mega makeover with king sizes and 10-per-cent-more Deals: the average burger, which was 177g in the 1970s, now weighs in at over 200g. The trend is spilling over into our kitchens, where we are supersizing our own meals. Once your eyes and stomach get used to eating portions that are too big, you regard those serving sizes as normal and a smaller serve seems less satisfying.

Health tips: Serve your food on a smaller plate and fill the plate first with vegetables or salad, then a fistful of protein such as fish, chicken or meat. In restaurants and cafes, ask for an entree size or a child’s portion. If your salad or spaghetti could feed two people, eat half, then ask the waiter to remove the plate.


5. Overtime overweight

“If you are in a hurry you will never get there.” — Chinese proverb

Do you often work back or work on at your desk during lunchtime? Then your waistline may be paying the price. Work fatigue from exhaustion, stress and putting in more than 40 hours a week strongly correlates with weight gain in both men and women, according to a study of 9000 people at the University of Helsinki.

Health tips: To help cut back on work hours, shut your office door, screen calls, break your work into sub-tasks, challenge perfectionism (cutting corners where you can) and learn to delegate. If you often have to work late, keep your desk drawer stocked with quick-fix non-perishable healthy foods such as pull-top tinned tuna, baked beans, rye crispbreads, nuts, rice crackers and tahini. Eat meals and snacks away from your desk so you savour each mouthful and feel satisfied by what you’ve eaten. If your job leaves you feeling constantly stressed and depleted, it could be time to look for a career or organisation change.


6. Living with your lover

Marriages are all happy. It’s having breakfast together that causes all the trouble.” — Irish proverb

Waking up to that special someone every day enriches your life spiritually but it can be bad news for your waistline. Once couples are living together, their weight, blood pressure and cholesterol climb and their exercise drops off, according to research at the University of Western Australia. “Women, on average, gain just under two kilos,” says Valerie Burke, research fellow from the School of Medicine, where the study was conducted. “In part, this is because they cook more gourmet-style meals and serve themselves portions as big as their partner has.”

Health tips: Give up your Nigella ways and opt for smaller portions of simpler meals such as grilled fish and salad or a stirfry with brown rice. Meanwhile, try tandem workouts where you cycle, lap the pool, play tennis or walk, talk and watch the sunset together. Embracing a healthy lifestyle as a team is the best way to ensure you still fit into your matching bathrobes for years to come.


Are you falling for food labels?

  • Your food choices may not be as healthy as you think if you’re being misled by these label claims:
  • 97 pert cent fat-free: those lollies or biscuits may be low in fat but they’re still not a healthy choice. Fat is only one part of the big picture — kilojoules, salt, sugar, colours and preservatives on a food label should not be ignored.
  • Lite: often refers to the colour or taste, so a “lite” food might still be high in kilojoules and fat; or lite may be something that has no health-giving benefits. “Lite” olive oil, for example, is lighter in colour and less intense in taste, which actually means it has less disease-fighting antioxidant content.
  • Sumptuous pics: that juicy apple or ripe red capsicum you see in the picture may make up only 5 per cent of the flavour in the food, so always read the nutrition panel to check the rest of the ingredients.
  • Health bars: in 2006, Choice magazine tested 150 cereal bars and found that only 13 were nutritionally sound while most were so loaded with fat and up to 20 per cent sugar that they were on a par with a chocolate bar or packet of crisps. Of particular concern was the use of palm and coconut oil (high in saturated fat) or hydrogenated oil (a trans fatty acid that clogs the arteries).
  • No added sugar: an absence of sugar does not preclude the presence of other sweeteners such as dextrose, fructose, glucose or maltadextrin, which still behave like sugar in the body, spiking insulin levels and providing empty kilojoules.


Stephanie Osfield has been a freelance health journalist for 15 years.


Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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