Eating and sleeping. Sleeping and eating. They may be linked in more than making it onto the list of life’s necessities.
Among teenagers from 13 to 18 years old, those who slept fewer than seven hours also tended to eat unhealthier foods, according to a recent study. Even further, though, those same sleep-deprived teens were less likely to have eaten a fruit and vegetable in the prior day.
“We are showing that there are patterns that vary by sleep duration,” said Lauren Hale, an associate professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University. The recommendation for teenagers is at least nine hours of sleep, she said.
The information for the study came from a survey conducted on teens in 1996 and was the second wave of a health study. In the questionnaire, teenagers were asked how many times they had eaten at a fast food restaurant in the past week. The study didn’t specifically request information on what they ate.
In this sample, 70% of the teenagers reported less than the recommended hours of sleep. Hale said even more of today’s teenagers are probably in that category as well.
By looking at a collection of data that included over 13,000 teenagers, Hale and her associates could break the information apart to seek answers to other questions, such as whether there were any differences among boys and girls.
“There was a similar pattern for both,” she concluded. “Being a regular short sleeper was associated with increased unhealthy and decreased healthy [food] choices.”
The main benefit to this study, she said, is that the sample size is so large that it allows for generalizability, she said. The data from this study are publicly available, although Hale paid for some restricted data.
“We used the best available data set for answering this question, using nationally representative data,” she said.
Hale, who is a few years older than some of the original teenagers sampled in the study (she graduated from high school in 1994), said there are some elements to this study and analysis that reflect other research.
Hale said she is interested in the determinants and consequences of sleep in the entire population. Adolescence, she continued, is an important period in which teens make their own choices. Some of the decisions teens make can set them on health trajectories that last into adulthood, she said.
Teens “are developing [and] they might not be making the best choices,” of what to eat, she said. “Kids who are sleep deprived are not making decisions that have their long run interests in mind. Maybe not all kids are interested in their long run health: they are interested in short run outcomes, like the pleasure of eating, fitting in with other kids, or [choosing] what’s easy, what’s fast and what’s cheap.”
Additionally, snacking teenagers don’t tend to raid the refrigerator for something healthy at 1 am. They are more likely to choose something gooey and sweet, she said.
Hale cautioned that the data, while compelling, doesn’t claim a causal link. The information correlates insufficient sleep with poor eating habits, but it is possible that the link could go in the other direction: poor eating habits may affect sleep. Poor eating choices and below recommended rest could also be by products of other health-related issues, including depression.
In her next study, she is planning to collect week-long sleep and physical activity data on 1,000 15-year-olds. During that week, she will be asking participants to fill out a diary about their food consumption.
Hale, who joined Stony Brook in 2005, is one of the first founding faculty members of the Program in Public Health at SBU. She is chair of the admissions committee. The Master’s in Public Health program has a class size of around 30.
Hale lives in Northport with her husband, Matt Aibel, a psychotherapist with offices in Manhattan and Stony Brook, and their two-year-old son, Isaac.
She said the couple feel like they “live in a vacation town.” They enjoy the access to water harbors, playgrounds, parks and beaches. They go to the Lewis Oliver Farm in Northport with Isaac.
She said it’s difficult for her, a sleep researcher, to overcome the fact that her son has some bedtime resistance.
As for her work, Hale said teenagers are “naturally staying up later, but they are going to schools that start earlier.”