The less sleep you get, the better those chips – or those cookies, or that cake, or that ice cream – will look.
Such are the findings of a new study which says that the brain regions associated with reward and motivation are more strongly activated in those who are sleep-deprived than those who are not.
"I think it's related to cognitive control," researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge told MSN Health. "Your guard is somewhat down when you're tired and sleep deprived. Even though you know you probably shouldn't eat certain foods, when you're tired you might just decide to go for it."
Unless you have other options. Katie Chapmon, a registered dietitian at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center, said planning ahead is key to snacking healthily.
"What oftentimes ends up happening is our decision-making processes are not as sharp when we're sleep-deprived," she said – so if there aren't any healthy options immediately available in a tired person's kitchen, that person will go to whatever is immediately available, and that's not usually healthy.
Those options that are healthy can include fruit, string cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, whole-grain snacks or nuts, said Chapmon. In produce-deprived South Los Angeles, the majority of eateries are fast-food joints, which doesn't make the effort to be healthy any easier. If fast-food is the only option, Chapmon advised basing menu decisions off the nutrition facts, which fast-food establishments are obliged to provide to consumers.
Or you could not eat at all.
"There are definitely other things you can do as far as 'reward'," she said, referring to the study's characterization of why junk food is so appealing to the sleep-deprived. "Instead of eating, you could take a walk around the block and get your mind elsewhere."
Hunger could also be a symptom dehydration, which means a glass of water would do the trick.
"We always tend to think our body is going to say we're thirsty when we're dehydrated," Chapmon said. "But dehydration could also have our bodies say we're hungry."
Unnecessary snacking certainly isn't doing anything good for South Los Angeles' already-disproportionately high obesity rates. The county Department of Public Health shows the southside's obesity prevalence rates are much higher than other areas in the county.
Chapmon called it a "simple equation": "calories in versus calories out."
"Junk food items are higher in fat and higher in calories but have little in nutrition," she said. "Those calories at the end of the day do add up. Not to mention that if you're tired, you're more likely not to exercise as much."
Besides making sure you have healthy snack options available to you and double-checking your hunger, the dietitian said consistency in sleep schedule could be helpful, even if you don't always get a full eight hours.
"At least try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even if you may lack a couple hours of sleep here and there," said Chapmon.
Photo by Sharon Drummond via Flickr Creative Commons.