Inadequate, Poor-Quality Sleep Can Negatively Affect Diet

New research shows that, at least among college students, insufficient or poor-quality sleep can be an important factor between stress and diet.

Mary-Jon Ludy, PhD, as well as her colleagues Wan Shen, PhD, and HeeSoon Lee, PhD, all professors in the College of Health and Human Services at Bowling Green State University, were part of a worldwide team examining how the three factors are connected. While the project had long been in the works, the researchers needed to pivot and factor in the impact of COVID-19, both on the research methodology and on how students fared during the pandemic.

“What we discovered is that sleep has a big impact on so many other variables,” Ludy says. “If you don’t get enough sleep, you can be more susceptible to food cravings and your diet can suffer in a number of ways. The next day, you aren’t going to be as productive and your decision-making won’t be quite as good. Sleep is a time for us to recharge and reboot.”

The study, which spanned three continents and surveyed more than 2,500 students in April and May 2020, turned into a fully remote project with the onset of the pandemic. Ludy, Shen, and Lee joined colleagues at Michigan State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, International Medical University in Malaysia, Institute of Technology Sligo in Ireland, Leiden University College in the Netherlands, and the University of Taipei in Taiwan in creating an online survey and distributing it to students in seven countries.

“This was a silver lining to COVID-19,” Ludy says. “We never expected to be able to open this to a worldwide collaboration.”

The other opportunity COVID-19 presented was to survey students when they were undergoing a particularly stressful time, especially when it came to financial stress. What they found was that higher stress levels led to lower consumption of vegetables and fruits and higher consumption of sugary drinks, resulting in a higher dietary risk score. Those experiencing high financial stress and high dietary risk were more likely to have poor sleep quality and shorter sleep duration.

Ludy’s interest in the topic stems from her longtime work in the field of college student health.

“The college years are such a critical juncture in your life where you have a number of paths to take, and it has a huge influence on your life,” she says. “If you can make good health and self-care behaviors a habit early, it can help you avoid or delay chronic health issues.”

Ludy says the study has broader implications for young adults in general, not just college students. Before starting her PhD program, Ludy worked as a dietitian, seeing patients on a regular basis for counseling. One thing she sees missing from those assessments is discussing sleep behaviors.

“I never asked about sleep, and I think about that a lot now,” she says. “It isn’t a standard part of the assessment, and it should be. We should be asking patients to reflect on their sleep habits just like we would ask them to track their diet and monitor their mood. There’s no real cost involved in sleeping a few more hours a day or developing healthy sleep patterns—it’s feasible to change, we just overlook it. We need to ask the question and bring recognition to the importance of sleep.”

Ludy says there are a few simple steps to getting better rest such as trying to go to sleep at the same time each night and removing the distraction of phones and other electronic devices 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

“There’s no long-term reward for a shorter amount of sleep,” she says. “If you get adequate sleep, it can help you to lower stress levels, make better food choices, and improve your academic performance.”

— Source: Bowling Green State University