For many people, nutrition comes down to diet, and diet comes down to what you eat.
Unfortunately, this is a sadly uninformed and incomplete picture of nutrition, and a perspective that can be seriously detrimental for individuals. If an individual believes that the only way to eat healthy is by cutting out the unhealthy foods they love and incorporating the healthy foods they hate, they make the task of finding a healthy, balanced lifestyle much more difficult than it has to be.
The truth of the matter is that nutrition is a complex interplay between a variety of different factors. It’s a balancing act: Consistently eating healthy foods is important, but it’s also important to have variety. Limiting unhealthy foods is important, but it’s also important to enjoy your food.
In addition, recent research supports the idea that the timing of eating also plays a major role. Specifically, when people eat in relation to when they sleep can impact how well they eat and how well they sleep.
Let’s review two different research findings that dive deeper into the science of routine, and how eating and sleeping interact with each other.
Less Sleeping = More Eating?
One piece of evidence that supports the connection between eating and sleeping was provided in a 2016 research study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The researchers performed what is called a meta-analysis, meaning a statistical analysis of multiple previously published research studies. The purpose of a meta-analysis is to compare different published research studies and draw more broad conclusions about what the research suggests.
In this study, the researchers were interested in establishing a connection between how long people sleep and their overall energy balance, which includes how many calories they intake through eating and how many calories they burn through physical activity.
The researchers reviewed 17 different research studies and ended up including 11 in their meta-analysis. The conclusions the researchers presented were from a combination of each of these studies put together, and included data from a total of 172 research participants.
The overall conclusion of the study was that people who got less than adequate sleep (between 3½ to 5½ hours), they ate an average of 385 extra calories the following day. For reference, 385 calories are roughly 20% of the calories required per day on a 2000-calorie diet. This is roughly the same amount of calories as a serving of homemade chicken stir fry, or a heaping bowl of your favorite sugary cereal with milk.
However, the lack of sleep did not translate into more physical activity, so the extra calories consumed after insufficient sleep definitely had the potential to contribute to weight gain.
Less Eating = More Sleeping?
The research above connecting insufficient sleep to increased eating was built on a solid foundation of published research. The following idea also links eating and sleeping, but comes from unpublished data that were presented at a conference for the Obesity Society.
Despite the fact that it has not yet been proven to be fully reliable, the research nonetheless establishes a provocative connection between eating and sleeping. The main idea of the study is that eating nothing between the hours of 2PM and 8AM may be effective in burning body fat and losing weight.
The study tracked the eating of 11 overweight research participants on two different feeding schedules. For one schedule, participants ate during normal feeding hours, with meals falling anywhere from 8AM to 8PM. By contrast, on the “early time-restricted feeding” schedule, participants did not eat anything before 8AM or after 2PM. The total amount of calories consumed did not change between the two schedules.
The researchers concluded that incorporating a daily 18-hour fast caused participants to burn more fat while they slept, and also helped to regulate appetite levels throughout the day.
It’s important to note that this feeding schedule could not be generalized to all people, in all likelihood. In one sense, participants were essentially using the scheduling of their eating to activate the body’s fat-burning reaction, so that they could utilize their sleeping time to burn the excess fat they had stored on their bodies. For people who do not have similar fat stores, this approach could be less effective and more problematic.
Nonetheless, the point is that through controlling their daily eating and sleeping routine, participants were able to fundamentally change the way their body metabolized food – even while keeping their diet and their total number of calories consistent.
Getting to the Meat of these Research Findings
We have a lot to learn about the science of nutrition, so it’s important not to latch onto every new finding as ground-breaking or life-altering.
However, the new research presented above does support the idea that there is a real relationship between how much you eat and how much you sleep. Even more broadly, there seems to be a growing consensus that individuals should note the timing of their eating just as much as they take note of the food that they eat.
This should not be seen as an endorsement of the dietary plan outlined above, in which individuals do not eat anything after 2PM. There is insufficient research to support the effectiveness of this plan, and even if there was sufficient research, that wouldn’t mean that it would be a good fit for everyone.
When making dietary changes, remember the three P’s: Practical, Personal, and Pleasurable.
The overall conclusion is that nutritional scientists have recently demonstrated that eating and sleeping are integrally linked, and the timing of eating is an important factor for overall dietary health. Individuals should take care not only to watch what they eat, but also to take note of when they eat.
When you are able to settle into a good routine, and when what you eat, when you eat, and how much you sleep all come together into a healthy balance, you’ll be amazed at how much energy you can have and how in sync you will feel with the world around you!
Al Khatib, H. K., Harding, S. V., Darzi, J., & Pot, G. K. (2016). The effects of partial sleep deprivation on energy balance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Peterson, C. (2016). Time-Restricted Feeding Increases Fat Oxidation and Reduces Swings in Appetite Levels in Humans. Oral abstract presentation at: The Obesity Society Annual Meeting 2016; October 31 – November 4, 2016. Retrieved from:
New diets often begin in one of two ways.
One way is what we’ll call the “New Year’s Resolution Diet.” Perhaps an individual had been aware of their goal to lose weight for a long time, but had never found the right time to make that first step. They then decide that starting the first day of the year – or any special, memorable day – they’ll turn things around and implement a new diet.
Let’s call the other way the “Documentary Diet.” Maybe an individual saw one of the many inspiring documentaries about promising new diets, or they read a book about a miracle weight loss solution, or were otherwise inspired by some discrete event. Using this as motivation, they respond to what they perceive to be a clarion call for a dietary overhaul, and begin immediately implementing new eating habits.
For many of us, we’re intimately familiar with New Year’s Resolution Diets and Documentary Diets. Perhaps we’ve tried one or the other, or even both at once! If not, at the very least a family member or friend has considered beginning a diet using one of these two strategies.
However, there’s a problem hidden inside both of these dieting strategies.
Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making resolutions to eat healthier or being inspired to change your diet. And anything at all that provides motivation to eat healthy is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
Nonetheless, the problem with New Year’s Resolution Diets and Documentary Diets is that they generally don’t last. And new research has demonstrated one possible reason why.
Approach & Avoidance in Dieting
New research may have identified one reason why diets generally don’t last. In 2016, Dr. Meredith David, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University, published a study in the journal Psychology & Marketing entitled “Saying ‘No’ to Cake or ‘Yes’ to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals.”
The dominant idea expressed in the title of the research study is the difference between approach strategies and avoidance strategies. Approach strategies indicate the addition of some new positive health behavior, such as to eat more kale. Avoidance strategies indicate the subtraction of some existing negative health behavior, such as to eat less cake.
Any successful diet will undoubtedly (and unavoidably) contain elements of both strategies. To continue with the simple example given in the title of the article, if an individual were to eat more kale during a meal, they would (hopefully!) have less appetite for cake after the meal. Thus the approach strategy would supplement the avoidance strategy. The opposite relationship would also be possible, where keeping oneself from certain foods produces the appetite that leads one towards a better food, etc.
High and Low Self Control
The purpose of the research was to examine how individuals with high and low self-control differed on their implementation of these approach and avoidance behaviors in setting and attaining health goals.
Collecting data from a total of 542 research participants over a total of three studies, Dr. Meredith and her colleagues demonstrated several interesting relationships between self-control and dieting strategy.
It turned out that the individuals who measured higher in self-control were actually less likely to utilize avoidance strategies when implementing a new diet. The participants who scored more highly on self-control wrote down fewer dieting rules that involved food restrictions, and when they did incorporate food restrictions, the restricted foods were always foods that could reasonably be avoided.
By contrast, individuals scoring low in self-control were more likely to report unreasonable avoidance rules, intending to keep themselves from their favorite foods as part of their dietary plans. They were also more likely to use approach strategies to incorporate foods that they didn’t like, such as Brussels sprouts, whereas individuals high in self-control tried to incorporate healthy foods they enjoyed, such as strawberries.
In summary, the research study supported the idea that individuals high in self-control tried to avoid foods they could feasibly avoid, and to add into their diet only those new healthy foods that they enjoyed. Meanwhile, low self-control individuals were more likely to try and avoid their favorite foods while adding on healthy foods they did not like.
Small Practical Goals
Think back to the two dieting strategies mentioned above: the “New Year’s Resolution Diet” and the “Documentary Diet.” What do they both have in common?
Both diets incorporate immediate, broad, sweeping change. In the case of the New Year’s Resolution Diet, the change is planned in advance, ready to be implemented on the first day of the year or another, comparably special date. For the Documentary Diet, the diet has to begin today! With so much immediate motivation to change eating habits, there’s no time to lose.
However, in both models, there is a very sharp demarcation between the individual’s dietary and health habits before the change, and the new habits that happened after the change.
This requires an immense amount of self-control, as habits are not easily broken. But as the research above illustrated, strong and effective self-control is less about having the brute will power to abide by arduous rules, and more about having the sensitivity and self-awareness to set yourself realistic goals.
Consider the following quote from The Art of War: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
To launch headlong a New Year’s Resolution Diet or a Documentary Diet with big plans and overly ambitious goals is to put yourself right on the battle line, without knowing for sure whether you’ll have the strength to ultimately win the war against those tantalizing snacks and cravings. Too often these leads to giving up the diet prematurely.
On the other hand, to implement manageable, attainable goals is to win the war first, and then march off to the kitchen to implement those practices that you already believe. These are the often kinds of diets that stick. While they may not be flashy or sensational, they can lead to steady, incremental progress.
In conclusion, the next time you begin a diet, even if it is for a New Year’s resolution or in response to an inspiring documentary, utilize the research above on the psychology of dietary motivation to set yourself up for success.
After all, once you settle into a consistent set of healthful dietary practices that works for your situation, you’ll no longer need to start any new diets!
-Oakville Wellness Team
David, M. E., & Haws, K. L. (2016). Saying “No” to Cake or “Yes” to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals. Psychology & Marketing, 33(8), 588-594.