Research by Blake Jones, assistant professor of human development and family studies, finds that one of the biggest predictors of obesity in children is insufficient sleep. (Photo by Mark Simons)
How does sleep deprivation result in obesity? Jones says that children's and adults' bodies react with the same biological domino effect when they don't get needed sleep.
"When you're sleep-deprived, your body needs extra energy to maintain the brain and muscle power to stay awake and keep moving," he says. "This stress tells your body to send chemical hormones such as cortisol into your system." Cortisol, a steroid hormone, increases blood sugar and suppresses the immune system.
Jones says lack of sleep also diminishes the effectiveness of the body's leptin receptors, which tell the brain you've had enough to eat. "When you're under stress, your brain doesn't acknowledge that your stomach is full," Jones says. "And beyond that, another hormone called ghrelin, which tells you that you're hungry, starts to spike because your body needs more energy to compensate for the lack of sleep."
Aggravating matters even more, Jones says, is that sleep-deprived bodies want quick energy, so they crave high-calorie foods such as fats and sugars.
"And at the same time, cortisol is keeping your blood sugars high so that your body is on high alert to act. But you're not really acting a lot — not like you're running from an attacking bear — you're just sleep-deprived. So as these children maintain these high blood-sugar levels, that starts to negatively affect their insulin, which makes them more likely to get Type 2 diabetes. These are kids!"
Parents need help
It's one thing to understand that sleep deprivation causes children to gain unhealthy amounts of weight. It's quite another to get children the sleep they need.
"The issue is time," Jones says. "There is this big time crunch — especially for families of working single parents or dual-earner families. They are busy. They get home from work and they have a limited amount of time to hurry and get the kids fed, bathed, and get homework done. What we see is that all these things push bedtime later and later."
Mealtimes also get pushed later, he says. "So the busy parent says, 'The best thing I can do to eat sooner since my kid is complaining, is either let them snack on junk food so they're happy, or I'll just pick up dinner on the way home — or make something from a box.' Parents say they just don't have time to make a healthy dinner."
Jones is using support from the USDA to develop a website that will help parents plan meals and also involve their children in the planning. The idea is that on Saturday the parent would plan meals for the coming week and allow the child to suggest some of the foods that are chosen. The child would then do age-appropriate tasks to help prepare the food.
"A lot of parents said that coming home and not having something planned to make for the night was the biggest challenge," Jones says. And with a plan in place, dinner can happen earlier, which can help bedtime happen earlier.