Photo: Getty / Westend61
Diet and exercise are two key aspects of successful weight loss, but there's another important factor that tends to get neglected—sleep! Adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night, yet the CDC estimates that at least one-third of U.S. adults log less than seven hours.
When it comes to weight loss, the effects of not getting enough shuteye go way beyond being a little tired or less productive. Inadequate sleep triggers metabolic and hormonal changes, which increase appetite and cravings and decrease insulin sensitivity. These effects are so significant that inadequate sleep is considered to be a risk factor for weight gain and obesity.
Additionally, a lack of sleep can make it even more difficult to stick to healthy food choices since mental health, mood and thought patterns are also impacted. So, what can you do to make your snoozing longer and more restful? Here are six small changes for better sleep to support weight loss.
While I love a cup of coffee (or two) in the mornings, I'm careful to avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening. I thought this was enough to avoid caffeine-related sleep issues, but that may not be the case. Turns out, caffeine can remain in the body for 6 to 9 hours after it's consumed. For those sensitive to caffeine, this can make falling asleep difficult. And, even if it doesn't seem to prevent you falling asleep, having remnants of the stimulant in the body can decrease the amount of deep sleep you get.
Weight Loss Tip: If you regularly consume caffeine, moderate consumption (<400mg caffeine/day) in the first half of the day will have little impact, but try to limit intake starting in the early afternoon. Also, watch out for any medications or supplements you take in the evening that may contain caffeine.
Eating high-fiber, less-processed foods is key for weight loss, as well as preventing most chronic diseases. Plus, it may even help your sleep! While research isn't conclusive, two separate studies found that individuals who ate low-fiber diets that were high in sugar and refined carbs were much more likely to experience poor-quality sleep, compared to those who ate more fiber and less added sugar. The reason isn't fully understood, although some speculate that sleep may be disrupted by a drop in blood sugar, since added sugars and refined, carb-rich foods trigger a larger, quicker reaction in glucose and insulin.
Weight Loss Tip: High-fiber, less-processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains are what sustainable weight loss programs are centered around, since these foods are high in nutrients while being lower in calories, added sugars and sodium. You're likely already focusing on these foods if you're trying to lose weight, so use the possible benefit of better sleep as additional motivation to continue with smart eating choices.
Related: Try Our 7-Day High Fiber Meal Plan
Exercise burns calories, but being physically active also helps you sleep better! Though the mechanism isn't fully understood, research suggests those who get regular exercise—regardless of length or type of activity—sleep longer and get more of the deep, restorative sleep that's essential for the body, compared to those who are less active.
Weight Loss Tip: Burning calories and sleeping better is a double win when trying to lose weight, so establish (and stick with) a regular workout schedule. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, but if you can't squeeze in a trip to the gym, even a short 10-minute walk or workout may result in improved sleep that night.
Do you struggle to fall asleep? Making a point to step outside a few times a day and get a little sunlight may help. The reason has to do with the body's circadian rhythms, which orchestrate and oversee our internal clock and schedule. Light and darkness influence these rhythms, so incorporating brief snippets of sunlight into your day can help remind your body it's time to be awake and alert. The goal is that as the day ends and gets darker, your circadian rhythms will respond by helping the body relax and fall asleep easier.
Weight Loss Tip: Going outside for a two- to three-minute walk cues the body rhythms to promote sleep later that night when it's dark. If that's not an option, open the blinds or sit by a window, and avoid sitting in the dark for long periods during daytime hours.
Keeping the body hydrated is key for weight loss, and apparently also for getting adequate sleep! A 2018 study found that individuals who got six hours of sleep or less were much more likely to be inadequately hydrated, compared to those who slept seven to nine hours. However, getting up several times a night to go to the bathroom could disrupt your overall sleep, so how do you hydrate to support weight loss and sleep without a full bladder waking you up during the night?
Weight Loss Tip: Determine your daily water goal; spread those ounces out through the day and emphasize getting most of it by mid-afternoon. To make it easy, I carry a water bottle and aim to consume 75 to 80 percent of my goal by 3 or 4 p.m. This way I get adequate hydration while still allowing my body plenty of time to absorb and excrete it. You can still have water and other fluids after that; just don't use the late afternoon and evening hours to get the majority of your daily hydration.
Losing weight isn't about deprivation; all foods (and drinks) can fit into a healthy weight loss approach. And if you like to have an occasional drink, then you're probably already opting for a lower-calorie cocktail like a glass of wine or light beer. However, there's more to know about that drink than just the calorie count.
Even though alcohol is a sedative and can help you initially fall asleep, the aftereffects—even from just one drink—can trigger less-restful sleep a few hours later. In fact, a 2018 study suggests that one to two glasses decreases your restorative, deep sleep by 24 percent. Less sleep + dehydration = not a good combo for weight loss.
Weight Loss Tip: If you drink, enjoy a cocktail or two on occasion—just don't make it a nightly habit. Even though you may not feel the effects from one drink per night, the sleep loss slowly adds up. Also, be aware that the more you consume, the amount of restful sleep decreases.
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert. Her work is regularly featured in Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, the American Heart Association and more. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.