Cherub Sleeps

Preoccupation with Food Overshadows Sleep

We have received enough lectures for a lifetime from people who know just what the root cause of obesity is. The lecturers know the cause and they know the solution: tax, nudge, cajole, and educate people to follow a healthier diet. Eat less of that awful ultra-processed food. But the presumption that it’s all about food serves only to cloud the picture and obscure the importance of other contributors. For instance, the preoccupation with food overshadows sleep as an important contributor to obesity.

New data in Obesity tell us that a heightened drive to eat is a natural biological response to suboptimal sleep. Introducing a special section in the journal, Faris Zuraikat, Sanja Jelic, and Marie-Pierre St-Onge tell us that we must wake up to the importance of sleep for metabolic health.

Sleep Loss Reduces Insulin Sensitivity

An especially interesting study in this new collection is a randomized crossover study of sleep restriction on postmenopausal women. Prachi Singh and colleagues found that cutting sleep from eight hours to five for just four days caused a reduction in both insulin sensitivity and fat oxidation. They tell us:

“Our study is the first, to our knowledge, to investigate how sleep restriction alters metabolism in postmenopausal women. Shortened sleep duration contributes to some of the metabolic
dysfunction observed in postmenopausal women. Larger trials are needed to assess how sleep disturbances cause metabolic dysfunction across all stages of menopause.”

Environmental Obesity DriversStepping Back

Because food so often overshadows sleep and other factors in presumptions about “root causes” of the rise in obesity, public health advocates make proposals for overcoming obesity that are woefully incomplete. Almost laughably, a new editorial in JAMA laments that “diet received relatively little specific attention” in guidance for childhood obesity. Experts tell us that the real problem causing obesity is simply that the food industry is “feeding us rubbish” and we’re letting them get away with it.

But the truth is not so simple.

“Sleep deficiency and obesity are co-occurring epidemics, with more than 33% of adults sleeping less than the recommended seven hours per night and more than 40% having obesity,” write Zuraikat et al.

And there is more. Sleep deprivation is just one expression of the heightened stress and distress that is fueling the rise in obesity. Then our tech and physical environment contributes to weight gain because it makes routine physical activity less common. Exposure to drugs and chemicals disrupts human metabolism and causes our bodies to store more fat. On top of that, the relationships can work in both directions.

So yes, we need to focus more on sleep and much more to understand the root causes of obesity and find more effective strategies to reverse its rise.

Click here for the editorial by Zuraikat et al and here for the study by Singh et al. For further perspective on what we do and don’t know about the causes of obesity, click here and here.

Cherub Sleeps, painting by Guido Reni / WikiArt

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May 3, 2023

One Response to “Preoccupation with Food Overshadows Sleep”

  1. May 03, 2023 at 9:28 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup! I would suggest we use a disease approach to the problem. Our physiology (the energy regulation system) is being affected and doing unhealthy things for more and more people over the last 40 years in certain environments. The question is what is making the ERS go awry. We need to start with a blank piece of paper and begin. We are getting better and better at forcing the ERS to a healthier point, but prevention remains a puzzlement.