noun_Search_345985 Created with Sketch.

Why Sleeping Less Makes You Crave Junk Food

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
November 4, 2020
Why Sleeping Less Makes You Crave Junk Food image

Have you ever reached for a bag of chips after a restless night of sleep? Science can help explain why your brain feels more inclined to go on a junk food binge after not getting enough ZZZs.

A recent study from Northwestern University found that it’s not just sugar or salt—people crave more calorie-dense foods when they are low on sleep. [1] i Furthermore, researchers have started to figure out both how and why this occurs—and exactly what people can do to combat it. [2-8]

How researchers used doughnuts and cookies to uncover sleep truths

Here’s how the Northwestern study worked: Among the 29 participants, half acted as a control group, getting a normal night’s rest. The other half could only sleep four hours each night. Halfway through the study, the groups were reversed, so the data would be more thorough and complete. Researchers then noted the foods that each group tended to eat the following day.

Interestingly, the study found that participants changed their food choices depending on how much sleep they received. The sleep deprived group gravitated toward calorie-dense foods like doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies, and potato chips, while those who slept well made much healthier choices.

While scientists are still unsure exactly why this is, they hypothesize that certain brain areas may not get the energy they need when they are sleep deprived—causing your brain to compensate by craving calorie-dense foods. [9-15] Unfortunately, these foods also tend to be low in nutrients.

Something similar might be happening when we crave more coffee than usual after a poor night of sleep. A similar mechanism may be at play when poor sleep leads to junk food cravings. [16-23]

Remember that genetics also play a role

It’s important to remember that everyone is different. Some people have a greater genetic predisposition to eating junk food, whether sleep deprived or not. [24-26]

Furthermore, cravings are a complex process that is hard-wired in your brain—it’s not about self-control. [27-32] For example, some people have a tendency to crave chocolate. Chocolate cravers will have all sorts of activity in the frontal part of their brain when presented with chocolate—compared to almost no activity in non-cravers [33-36]

This genetic and biological variability is likely at play with those who sleep less, but further research is needed. [37-40] The authors of this latest study noted that, “Past research shows sleep deprivation increases certain endocannabinoids, which are naturally produced by the body and are important for feeding behavior and how the brain responds to odors, including food smells.”

The bottom line

Research suggests that just about everything goes haywire with our brain and bodies when we don’t get enough rest—the importance of sleep can’t be overstated. Thus, it is not surprising that our eating patterns would also be impacted. [41] xli    

This leads to one of the most important benefits of eating a healthy Paleo Diet®—brain health. When you eat real foods, your brain and your hormones will function more efficiently. This is because eating a healthy diet helps keep the pleasure center of your brain under control, reducing cravings while keeping energy levels stable.

That means that, regardless of whether you have a restless night of sleep, you’ll be set up for a healthier day ahead.


[1] Bhutani S, Howard JD, Reynolds R, Zee PC, Gottfried J, Kahnt T. Olfactory connectivity mediates sleep-dependent food choices in humans. Elife. 2019;8

[2] Myers CA, Martin CK, Apolzan JW. Food cravings and body weight: a conditioning response. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2018;25(5):298-302.

[3] Haass-koffler CL, Leggio L, Kenna GA. Pharmacological approaches to reducing craving in patients with alcohol use disorders. CNS Drugs. 2014;28(4):343-60.

[4] Apolzan JW, Myers CA, Champagne CM, et al. Frequency of Consuming Foods Predicts Changes in Cravings for Those Foods During Weight Loss: The POUNDS Lost Study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017;25(8):1343-1348.

[5] Sayer RD, Peters JC, Pan Z, Wyatt HR, Hill JO. Hunger, Food Cravings, and Diet Satisfaction are Related to Changes in Body Weight During a 6-Month Behavioral Weight Loss Intervention: The Beef WISE Study. Nutrients. 2018;10(6)

[6] Giuliani NR, Berkman ET. Craving is an Affective State and Its Regulation Can Be Understood in Terms of the Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation. Psychol Inq. 2015;26(1):48-53.

[7] Rebello CJ, Greenway FL. Reward-Induced Eating: Therapeutic Approaches to Addressing Food Cravings. Adv Ther. 2016;33(11):1853-1866.

[8] Anguah KO, Syed-abdul MM, Hu Q, et al. Changes in Food Cravings and Eating Behavior after a Dietary Carbohydrate Restriction Intervention Trial. Nutrients. 2019;12(1)

[9] Moore CF, Sabino V, Koob GF, Cottone P. Neuroscience of Compulsive Eating Behavior. Front Neurosci. 2017;11:469.

[10] Blasio A., Steardo L., Sabino V., Cottone P. (2014b). Opioid system in the medial prefrontal cortex mediates binge-like eating. Addict. Biol. 19, 652–662. 10.1111/adb.12033

[11] Brown R. M., Kupchik Y. M., Spencer S., Garcia-Keller C., Spanswick D. C., Lawrence A. J., et al. . (2015). Addiction-like synaptic impairments in diet-induced obesity. Biol. Psychiatry 81, 797–806. 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.11.019

[12] Volkow N. D., Wang G. J., Tomasi D., Baler R. D. (2013). The addictive dimensionality of obesity. Biol. Psychiatry 73, 811–818. 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.12.020

[13] Cottone P., Wang X., Park J. W., Valenza M., Blasio A., Kwak J., et al. . (2012). Antagonism of sigma-1 receptors blocks compulsive-like eating. Neuropsychopharmacology 37, 2593–2604. 10.1038/npp.2012.89

[14] Wang G. J., Volkow N. D., Logan J., Pappas N. R., Wong C. T., Zhu W., et al. . (2001). Brain dopamine and obesity. Lancet 357, 354–357. 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)03643-6

[15] Vendruscolo L. F., Gueye A. B., Darnaudery M., Ahmed S. H., Cador M. (2010). Sugar overconsumption during adolescence selectively alters motivation and reward function in adult rats. PLoS ONE 5:e9296. 10.1371/journal.pone.0009296

[16] Cottone P., Sabino V., Steardo L., Zorrilla E. P. (2009b). Consummatory, anxiety-related and metabolic adaptations in female rats with alternating access to preferred food.

[17] Wang G. J., Geliebter A., Volkow N. D., Telang F. W., Logan J., Jayne M. C., et al. . (2011). Enhanced striatal dopamine release during food stimulation in binge eating disorder. Obesity 19, 1601–1608. 10.1038/oby.2011.27

[18] Velazquez-Sanchez C., Ferragud A., Moore C. F., Everitt B. J., Sabino V., Cottone P. (2014). High trait impulsivity predicts food addiction-like behavior in the rat. Neuropsychopharmacology 39, 2463–2472. 10.1038/npp.2014.98

[19] Cambridge V. C., Ziauddeen H., Nathan P. J., Subramaniam N., Dodds C., Chamberlain S. R., et al. . (2013). Neural and behavioral effects of a novel mu opioid receptor antagonist in binge-eating obese people. Biol. Psychiatry 73, 887–894. 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.10.022

[20] Cottone P., Sabino V., Steardo L., Zorrilla E. P. (2008). Opioid-dependent anticipatory negative contrast and binge-like eating in rats with limited access to highly preferred food. Neuropsychopharmacology 33, 524–535. 10.1038/sj.npp.1301430

[21] Ziauddeen H., Chamberlain S. R., Nathan P. J., Koch A., Maltby K., Bush M., et al. . (2013). Effects of the mu-opioid receptor antagonist GSK1521498 on hedonic and consummatory eating behaviour: a proof of mechanism study in binge-eating obese subjects. Mol. Psychiatry 18, 1287–1293. 10.1038/mp.2012.154

[22] Carnell S., Benson L., Pantazatos S. P., Hirsch J., Geliebter A. (2014). Amodal brain activation and functional connectivity in response to high-energy-density food cues in obesity. Obesity 22, 2370–2378. 10.1002/oby.20859

[23] Velazquez-Sanchez C., Santos J. W., Smith K. L., Ferragud A., Sabino V., Cottone P. (2015). Seeking behavior, place conditioning, and resistance to conditioned suppression of feeding in rats intermittently exposed to palatable food. Behav. Neurosci. 129, 219–224. 10.1037/bne0000042

[24] Watson P., Wiers R. W., Hommel B., de Wit S. (2014). Working for food you don't desire. Cues interfere with goal-directed food-seeking. Appetite 79, 139–148. 10.1016/j.appet.2014.04.005

[25] Volkow N. D., Wang G. J., Telang F., Fowler J. S., Thanos P. K., Logan J., et al. . (2008). Low dopamine striatal D2 receptors are associated with prefrontal metabolism in obese subjects: possible contributing factors. Neuroimage 42, 1537–1543. 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.06.002

[26] Zhang C., Wei N. L., Wang Y., Wang X., Zhang J. G., Zhang K. (2015). Deep brain stimulation of the nucleus accumbens shell induces anti-obesity effects in obese rats with alteration of dopamine neurotransmission. Neurosci. Lett. 589, 1–6. 10.1016/j.neulet.2015.01.019

[27] Asmaro D, Liotti M. High-caloric and chocolate stimuli processing in healthy humans: an integration of functional imaging and electrophysiological findings. Nutrients. 2014;6(1):319-41.

[28] Alonso-alonso M, Woods SC, Pelchat M, et al. Food reward system: current perspectives and future research needs. Nutr Rev. 2015;73(5):296-307.

[29] Puhl MD, Cason AM, Wojnicki FH, et al. A history of bingeing on fat enhances cocaine seeking and taking. Behav Neurosci. 2011;125:930–942.

[30] Avena NM, Carrillo CA, Needham L, et al. Sugar-dependent rats show enhanced intake of unsweetened ethanol. Alcohol. 2004;34:203–209.

[31] Johnson PM, Kenny PJ. Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature Neurosci. 2010;13:635–641.

[32] Grigson PS, Hajnal A. Once is too much: conditioned changes in accumbens dopamine following a single saccharin-morphine pairing. Behav Neurosci. 2007;121:1234–1242.

[33] Wolz I, Sauvaget A, Granero R, et al. Subjective craving and event-related brain response to olfactory and visual chocolate cues in binge-eating and healthy individuals. Sci Rep. 2017;7:41736.

[34] Giuliani NR, Berkman ET. Craving is an Affective State and Its Regulation Can Be Understood in Terms of the Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation. Psychol Inq. 2015;26(1):48-53.

[35] Rozin P, Levine E, Stoess C. Chocolate craving and liking. Appetite. 1991;17(3):199-212.

[36] Polivy J, Coleman J, Herman CP. The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Int J Eat Disord. 2005;38(4):301-9.

[37] Bringmann H. Genetic sleep deprivation: using sleep mutants to study sleep functions. EMBO Rep. 2019;20(3)

[38] Sehgal A, Mignot E. Genetics of sleep and sleep disorders. Cell. 2011;146(2):194-207.

[39] Crocker A, Sehgal A. Genetic analysis of sleep. Genes Dev. 2010;24(12):1220-35.

[40] Da costa souza A, Ribeiro S. Sleep deprivation and gene expression. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2015;25:65-90.

[41] Eugene AR, Masiak J. The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep. MEDtube Sci. 2015;3(1):35-40.

Even More Articles For You

Nutrition Divided: Low-Fat vs. High-Fat Diet
Don’t listen to the media hype about what diet you should be on. Simply avoid sugar, eat organic vegetables and lean protein, and focus on nutrition.
By Casey Thaler
Nell's Corner: Do you need a flu shot, or is food good enough?
What should you do if you want to arm yourself against influenza but prefer a more natural line of defense? Focus on optimizing your gut health!
By Nell Stephenson
Ask Dr. Cordain and The Paleo Diet Team
Watch a live Paleo diet question and answer session featuring Dr. Loren Cordain, the founder of The Paleo Diet, and some of his graduate students!
By The Paleo Diet® Team
Paleo Leadership
Trevor Connor
Trevor Connor

Dr. Loren Cordain’s final graduate student, Trevor Connor, M.S., brings more than a decade of nutrition and physiology expertise to spearhead the new Paleo Diet team.

Mark J Smith
Dr. Mark J. Smith

One of the original members of the Paleo movement, Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the benefits of Paleo nutrition.

Nell Stephenson
Nell Stephenson

Ironman athlete, mom, author, and nutrition blogger Nell Stephenson has been an influential member of the Paleo movement for over a decade.

Loren Cordain
Dr. Loren Cordain

As a professor at Colorado State University, Dr. Loren Cordain developed The Paleo Diet® through decades of research and collaboration with fellow scientists around the world.