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Poor Quality Foods and Poor Quality Sleep

A systematic review uses special statistical methods to examine high-quality studies with certain kinds of data in order to get an overall idea of what the literature says about a topic. It looks at the data together, weeding out studies that have conclusions that might have been made through poorly chosen study methods. It also helps to avoid others coming to a conclusion based on "cherry picking," or choosing something that agrees with a personal bias.

A new look at food and sleep

In February 2023, the journal Nutrition published a large systematic review and meta-analysis looking at food quality and its relationship to sleep quality. This study looked at a very specific type of dietary intake – ultra-processed foods.1

Ultra-processed foods are high in sugar and/or saturated fat. In my experience, this equates to many grocery-bought pre-prepared foods and ingredients. Intake of ultra-processed foods has greatly increased.2

Eating ultra-processed foods has been linked to the following major public health crises:3-5

  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Poor mental health, particularly anxiety and depression

In addition to those problems, ultra-processed foods are also strongly linked to poorer sleep quality and less time asleep in all age groups.1

So, what is a possible solution?

For those who can do so, eating more minimally processed foods – the opposite of ultra-processed foods – could be an answer.

The so-called Mediterranean diet is a less processed and sustainable diet linked to lower mortality in general. It includes no to moderate alcohol, increased quantities of foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and less (but not zero) meat.6

In adolescents, in particular, the Mediterranean diet appears to increase time asleep and reduce nighttime wakings.7

If only the answer were that simple

Adopting a diet like this could have health benefits, including improved sleep. All conclusions have caveats and problems, however.

Telling people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables assumes that people have logistical and financial access to fresh foods. Those who don't have easy access to grocery stores or higher access to fast food tend to eat less fruit and vegetables.8

Also, poor sleep can impact food choices, which in turn have both sleep and other health consequences.9

What I suggest to my clients

My clients often ask me, "Can I eat or avoid eating something specific before bed that will make me sleep?"

The research on pre-sleep snacks is old. But it does tend to follow the idea that higher-quality foods can promote improved sleep quality for some. As common sense, I usually suggest (if it's safe for them to do so) that they improve the quality of any bedtime snack they already have, and incorporate protein and high-quality carbohydrates.

My "go-to" is apple with crunchy peanut butter. Still, even some leftovers from dinner will do – especially if they are fresh! Never make dietary changes, of course, if they might be unhealthy for you. Always check with your doctor first.

Did you make a change to your diet to improve your sleep? Did it help you? Any suggestions for those who might want to do the same?

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