In the last few years, the link between what we eat and our sleep patterns has increasingly emerged as an important piece in the obesity puzzle.
If you’re a bad sleeper you could be adding over an inch to your waistline, according to a new study.
Scientists at the University of Leeds have found that people sleeping less than six hours a night have on average 3cm bigger waists than those sleeping for nine hours.
“Our findings highlight the importance of getting enough sleep when it comes to obesity,” says lead researcher Dr Laura Hardie.
Indeed, in the last few years, the link between what we eat and our sleep patterns has increasingly emerged as an important piece in the obesity puzzle.
We’ve known for a long time that the right foods can aid sleep, but more recent research shows that better sleep helps promote weight loss.
Another study, this time by Uppsala University in Sweden, found that the more tired people were, the more they ate during the day – which, over time, led to significant weight gain.
This is partly explained by the fact that lack of sleep appears to stimulate production of the hunger hormone ‘ghrelin’, which makes us overeat.
Equally, the more you sleep the less you tend to eat.
“There are now a number of interesting studies that show how long and how well you sleep are linked to your weight,” says nutritionist Fiona Hunter.
“If you’re trying to lose weight, it makes sense to overhaul your sleep habits as well as your diet and include foods to help you get a good night’s sleep.”
How our plan works
The first step to sorting your sleep and slimming down is to eat balanced, nutritious meals and snacks, which are evenly spaced throughout the day.
Eat too little during the day, and you’ll overeat in the evening, leading to a night of tossing, turning and indigestion.
But eat too small a dinner and you might find yourself lying awake, desperate for a trip to the fridge. Planning is therefore essential – which is why we’ve created the simple meal planner for you on the far right.
This diet will also help you break the dreaded daily cycle of sleeping badly, then guzzling caffeine and snacking on sugary treats to get through the day. This way you’ll get a more restful night and our food plan is also designed to aid weight loss.
Within two weeks you should be sleeping more soundly, experiencing fewer cravings and starting to drop a few pounds. Follow the plan for four weeks and you could ditch a whole dress size.
Don’t crash diet
If you’re eating fewer than 1,200 calories per day, as some diets recommend, there’s a good chance you’ll go to bed hungry which will naturally play havoc with sleep, so you’ll tend not to lose weight in the long run.
Our diet is around 1,400 calories per day, which is high enough to ensure you don’t go hungry, but low enough to help you lose weight.
Any restrictive diet which cuts out food groups could mean you miss out on nutrients vital for good quality kip. For instance, low levels of calcium
(found in dairy) and magnesium (in dark green veg, nuts and seeds) are linked to poor sleep, as both these minerals are natural relaxants. Low iron can trigger restless leg syndrome and a deficiency in the B vitamin folic acid, found in wholegrains, may lead to insomnia.
Similarly, people deficient in vitamin C (found in fruit and veg) or selenium (typically in nuts, meat and fish) have been shown to sleep for fewer hours per night.
Our diet is packed with fruit and veg, wholegrains, low-fat dairy, nuts, fish and lean meat to ensure a varied supply of vital nutrients.
Skip coffee completely
Experiments show that caffeine actually stays in your system for up to 12 hours, which means the effects of that 11am latte could linger until 11pm.
Avoiding caffeine for just one day, on the other hand, can improve sleep quality that night, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing.
This goes for chocolate and tea too.
Tuck yourself in with tryptophan
This is an amino acid which helps to induce sleep. Good sources of tryptophan include: eggs, meat, seafood, nuts, yoghurt, milk, oats, bananas and beans. Our diet is packed with these foods.
Eat no later than 7pm
It’s best to eat your evening meal around three hours before bed as this will optimise your levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin in time.
Eating late at night, on the other hand, increases the blood flow to your digestive tract, causing your stomach to secrete more gastric acid and making your intestinal muscles work harder.
This stimulates your body’s metabolic systems at the very time when you want them to be slowing down for sleep.
Avoiding late meals also reduces your chance of suffering from acid reflux which can be a serious sleep disrupter.
Avoid (nearly all) booze
At first, alcohol induces sleep, but if you indulge in more than one or two small drinks you’re probably in for a fragmented night.
One study pinpointed that booze increased slow-wave deep sleep during the first half of the night, but increased sleep disruptions in the second half of the night.
This is why, after a heavy night out, we often find ourselves crashing straight to sleep but then waking in the small hours. For the first two weeks on this plan it’s best to avoid alcohol.
After that, one small glass of wine every other night is the limit. Sticking to this will cut lots of calories too.
Get the right water balance
Research shows a direct correlation between your hydration level and the number of hours of kip you get. Aim to drink around 6-8 glasses of water a day.
But if you often find yourself needing the loo in the night, it’s best to avoid liquids for three hours before bedtime.
Have a magnesium bath
Most of us know that a relaxing bath before bedtime can help get us in the mood for sleep, but by adding the muscle-relaxing mineral magnesium you can supercharge your soak’s snooze power.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to insomnia but not everyone can absorb the mineral effectively from their diet, so getting it through your skin is a great way to boost your levels.
Brighter morning breakfasts
- Porridge made with semi-skimmed milk and topped with chopped banana
- Banana smoothie made with a glass of skimmed milk and one banana, plus two oatcakes topped with tbsp peanut butter
- Two boiled eggs with granary toast soldiers (2 slices)
- Omelette (2 eggs) served with grilled tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms
- Greek yoghurt (small pot) with berries and 1 tbsp chopped nuts
- Avocado and prawn salad sandwich on granary bread – no mayo – and one apple
- Grilled turkey breast, sliced and served with salad greens, 5 cherry tomatoes and half a chopped red pepper, all drizzled with balsamic vinegar, 2 plums
- Veggie chilli served with sweet jacket potato, small yoghurt pot
- Sardines (4) on 2 slices of granary toast, one satsuma
- Smoked mackerel pate (2 tbsp) with 1 wholemeal pitta, plus 1 celery stick and 1 carrot chopped to dip, one banana
Dream-inducing dinners (eat before 7pm)
- Oven-baked salmon fillet with lemon slices, served with wholegrain rice, half a red pepper, 5 cherry tomatoes and 1 courgette, drizzled with 1 tbsp olive oil and oven-roasted
- Spaghetti Bolognese, tomato ragu made using half lean mince and half lentils, and served with wholemeal pasta
- Prawn stir-fry, made with 10 fresh prawns, any chopped mixed veg of your choice, cooked with half a sliced red onion, 1 tbsp sesame oil and 1 tbsp of soy sauce. Serve with brown rice
- One chicken breast filled with Boursin soft cheese, wrapped in Parma ham and baked for 20 minutes, served with steamed broccoli and sweet potato mash
- Cod fillet baked in foil with 1 tbsp of grated mozzarella and served with 5 grilled cherry tomatoes, half a can of cannelloni beans, drizzled with
balsamic vinegar. Serve with a portion of brown basmati rice
- Handful of Brazil nuts or almonds
- Oatcakes with mashed avocado
- Banana Yoghurt (small pot)
- Glass of semi-skimmed milk
- Sliced apple with 1 tbsp peanut butter
Five foods to boost sleep
1 TURKEY: Rich in the natural sleep-boosting chemical tryptophan.
2 HONEY: It contains glucose which sends a message to the brain to shut off orexin – a chemical linked to wakefulness and hunger.
3 OATS: They help your body produce the sleep hormone melatonin.
4 ALMONDS: A great source of the muscle-relaxing mineral magnesium.
5 CHERRIES: A nightly glass of cherry juice can help you fall asleep faster as it naturally boosts melatonin levels.
Five snooze saboteurs
CHEESE Soft cheese is fine but hard cheese, such as Cheddar, contains high levels of the amino acid tyramine, which makes the brain feel very alert.
SPICY FOODS As well as causing indigestion for many people, chilli contains capsaicin which makes it harder for your body to regulate temperature
and may result in a disturbed night.
DARK CHOCOLATE Good quality choc can contain as much as 40% of the amount of caffeine found in a standard cup of coffee.
CELERY Eaten in large amounts too close to bedtime, celery can be a diuretic that may leave you needing to pee during the night!
GREEN TEA Not only is it a source of caffeine, it also contains two other stimulants – theobromine and theophylline – which can increase heart rate and trigger feelings of anxiety. Not what you want late at night.