Want to Make Better Food Choices? Do This at Night

If sleep is fleeting—especially if you’re a woman—you may be more likely to adopt heart-harming eating habits, according to new research. Here’s the 411.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Are you the type to toss and turn all night, chasing elusive shuteye to no avail? It could have negative implications for your heart health, according to a new study.

Women who don’t sleep well may be at increased risk of heart disease—in part because poor sleep quality is linked to unhealthy eating habits, the new study from Columbia University finds.

While past research has found that people who don’t sleep as much are more likely to develop heart disease and associated conditions like type 2 diabetes, this study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, is the first to look more closely at sleep quality and its link to diet quality. The study looked at data from nearly 500 women ages 20 to 76.

"Women are particularly prone to sleep disturbances across the life span, because they often shoulder the responsibilities of caring for children and family and, later, because of menopausal hormones," said study author Brooke Aggarwal, Ed.D., assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a news release.

The researchers assessed the women’s sleep quality, how long it took them to actually fall asleep, and insomnia, along with the types and amounts of foods they usually eat. Here are the study’s key findings:

  • Women whose sleep quality was worse overall ate more added sugars in their diets, which are linked to diabetes and obesity.

  • Women who took longer to fall asleep ate more calories and more food by weight.

  • Women with more severe insomnia symptoms ate fewer unsaturated fats and more food by weight than women whose insomnia was milder.

"Our interpretation is that women with poor-quality sleep could be overeating during subsequent meals and making more unhealthy food choices," Dr. Aggarwal said.

But why might an out-of-whack night of sleep make us more likely to eat poorly? Well, researchers think it may have something to do with our body’s hunger and fullness signals being messed up by poor sleep quality, study author Faris Zuraikat, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in the news release.

"Fullness is largely affected by the weight or volume of food consumed, and it could be that women with insomnia consume a greater amount of food in an effort to feel full,” Dr. Zuraikat said. "However, it's also possible that poor diet has a negative impact on women's sleep quality. Eating more could also cause gastrointestinal discomfort, for instance, making it harder to fall asleep or remain asleep."

Know Your Sleep Hygiene Basics

Want to improve your sleep and therefore maybe lower your risk of heart disease, too? Enter sleep hygiene, aka ways to up your chances of a quality night’s rest.

Here are the main ways to improve your sleep hygiene, according to the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Don’t rely on naps too much. Your naps during the daytime should be no more than 30 minutes. Know that napping doesn’t make up for sleep you missed the night before.

  • Exercise regularly. Did you know that just 10 minutes of aerobic exercise—like a brisk walk—can significantly improve your sleep quality? Find a physical activity routine that you enjoy and fits into your schedule and you may find your night’s much more restful. Just make sure you’re not working out too hard too close to your bedtime, which can have the opposite effect.

  • Eat well. Yes, we’re back to food again! Clearly, food and sleep are strongly linked. Try to avoid eating heavy, rich, spicy, fatty, or fried foods too close to your bedtime. Carbonated drinks and citrus fruits can also be problematic for some people, leading to indigestion or heartburn when you’re trying to sleep (sorry, seltzer fans). And finally, avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime, as these can also mess with your sleep.

  • Be wise with light exposure. Our body’s exposure to different types of light can have a huge impact on our sleep quality. That means making sure you’re exposed to sunlight during the daytime and keeping it dark at night—this can help regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Also try to avoid using devices like TVs, phones, and tablets before bed—the blue light can also interfere with your body’s ability to get quality sleep.

  • Keep it cool. An ideal temperature for sleep in your bedroom is about 60-67 degrees.

If you’re still having trouble with your sleep quality after implementing these changes, know there are other things you can do to get the rest you need. Make an appointment with your primary care doctor and see what they recommend—they may be able to provide tips based on your specific health needs or refer you to a specialist to help get to the bottom of your sleep problems.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.