Parenting Survival : How Not Getting Enough Sleep Affects Your Food Choices

Do you remember that amazing activity that used to involve closing your eyes and remaining horizontal for eight hours until sunrise?

If you’ve had a baby, probably not.

If you have a child at home or can remember back to your college days you know that healthy eating tends to go out the window when you are short on sleep.

Increased hunger and appetite may be trigged through changes to your hunger hormones and mechanisms in your brain when sleep duration is chronically inadequate.

Studies show an increased feeling of sleep deprivation can cause:

1. Reduced brain activity in the region that helps you determine your appetite, which means you may be less likely to properly evaluate your hunger levels (aka you may eat even when you aren’t hungry).

2. Increased brain activity in the regions that are responsible for contributing to food appearing more appealing and appetizing, which may lead you to desire food when otherwise you may not.

Unfortunately, losing sleep is often a part of the process of becoming a parent.

For pregnant women the fourth trimester can bring insomnia and then once the baby arrives it’s buh-bye sleep (for both parents).

A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 76 percent of parents have frequent sleep problems. A study published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the Sleep Research Society, found that six years after having their first child most parents sleep hadn’t returned to pre-pregnancy amounts.

Once you suffer from sleep deprivation not only do you understand why it’s used as a form of torture but getting it back is one of the only things you can think about. Creating a strategy with professionals, including a dietitian (Book a 15-minute consult here), for sleep deprivation is key to being successful through the fourth trimester.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body

In order to understand how sleep deprivation impacts food intake and nutrition status, we must understand more thoroughly how it affects our body.

The effects of sleep deprivation go beyond brain fog and a tired body.

One study in particular by the European Journal of Medicine found there is a cycle that develops, as sleep quality worsens your body looks for more weight-gain promoting high-calorie foods.

Parents need to be at the top of their game on a daily basis to take care of their little ones.

Sleep deprivation can take a big toll on your entire body, and can have detrimental effects in the at least then of the following ways:

1. Memory issues

2. Mood changes and depression

3. Weakened immunity

4. Low sex drive

5. Trouble thinking and concentrating

6. Higher incidence of accidents ( i.e tripping, falling etc.)

7. High blood pressure

8. Weight gain

9. Risk of heart disease

10. Poor balance

People who are parents know that the solution of getting more sleep may not be as simple as it sounds.

So, what are your other options?

My Top 10 Nutrition Strategies for the Sleep Deprived Parent

Studies show that when a person is sleep deprived, they consumed on average an extra 385 calories extra per day.

These extra calories came about via increased fat intake, whereas protein intake tended to drop.

With that in mind, here are a few strategies to help you nudge your nutrition back on track during those hazy sleep-deprived days:

1. Eat protein & nutrient dense meals and snacks throughout the day – Try to avoid a blood sugar rollercoaster and opt for nutrient-dense carbohydrates, adequate protein and healthy fats that will sustain and power you throughout the day. Consume protein from eggs, plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, lean meats, and healthful protein powders; healthful fats from avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and nut butters; and nutrient-dense carbohydrates from whole fruit, steel-cut oats, sweet potatoes, and veggies.

2. Simplify your food situation – Choose prechopped fruits and vegetables, order in healthy meals or purchase ready-made meals at the grocery store or from a meal delivery service.

3. Ask for help – Asking for help so you can have an extra minute to grocery shop, eat a meal or catch a nap is perfectly acceptable. It’s becoming more the norm these days to not have a baby shower and even to not ask for gifts, but don’t be afraid to ask for a hot delivered meal once the baby arrives.

4. Batch cook and freeze – Sleep deprivation on some level is inevitable once the baby arrives. Try to plan ahead by batch cooking and freezing snacks such as energy bites or healthy meals to have on hand when cooking becomes your last priority.

5. Sip caffeinated drinks until noon – As a stimulant, caffeine can be helpful for waking up. However, caffeine can work against your body by increasing your blood pressure and making it harder to wind down for sleep. Limit your intake to 200 mg/day, and make sure you stop drinking coffee by noon.

6. You can’t eat what you can’t see – From reading this article you now know that in your sleep deprived state your body has a hard time properly evaluating your hunger levels. If you are finding yourself especially drawn to highly processed foods or foods with added sugars it might be best to hide them out of sight or keep them out of the house.

7. Prioritize magnesium rich foods – Magnesium is involved in helping to calm and relax the body. It is useful for muscle relaxation, stress reduction and as a mild, natural sleep aid. Some magnesium rich foods include: Spinach, pumpkin seeds, swiss chard, beets greens, almonds, cashews, white beans, quinoa, black beans and brazil nuts.

8. Reduce meal size and liquid intake within a few hours before bedtime – A lot of liquid before bed mean lots of trips to the bathroom, and a large meal size can result in discomfort through reflux, heartburn, belching and bloating.

9. Reduce your alcohol intake before bed –Drinking alcohol can make some people sleepy, however studies show alcohol disrupts REM during the second half of your nightly sleep cycle.

10. Consider supplementation – Consider adding magnesium glycinate or melatonin to your bedtime routine. Taking 200-400 mg of magnesium glycinate in the evenings can promote calmness and sleepiness.

NOTE: People with kidney disease or severe heart disease should take magnesium supplements only under a health care provider’s supervision. Also, melatonin is NOT a supplement to be taken long term and can come with the side effects: headache, short-term feelings of depression, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability.


Brondel, L., Romer, M. A., Nougues, P. M., Touyarou, P., & Davenne, D. (2010). Acute partial sleep deprivation increases food intake in healthy men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(6), 1550-1559. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28523

Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature Communications, 4(1). doi:10.1038/ncomms3259

Katie Dupuis March 7, 2. (2019, March 08). What sleep deprivation does to your body-and your brain. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

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Penev, P. D. (2007). Sleep deprivation and energy metabolism: To sleep, perchance to eat? Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity, 14(5), 374-381. doi:10.1097/med.0b013e3282be9093

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