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Holiday Weight Gain: Why can’t I resist the cookies?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, which means amongst the decorating, holiday parties and gift shopping are the candy canes, sugarplums and dozens of decorated, delicious cookies. Between finding the perfect presents and spending quality time with family, many of us look to avoid holiday weight gain that always seems inevitable during this season.

Just the other day, the office was filled with tempting holiday treats from cookies to candy and everything in between. I found myself over-indulging because I just couldn’t seem to resist the temptation.

What caused me to eat more than 300 calories?

As it turned out, my overindulgence was probably caused by what happened the night before. I stayed up way too late after midnight shopping online for Christmas presents.  I was very much sleep deprived when I arrived at the office at 7 a.m.

Sleep deprivation can amplify the joy of eating, making cravings for highly palatable, yet normally unhealthy snacks like chips, cookies, and candy much harder to resist. A 2016 study published by the University of Chicago proved this phenomenon by demonstrating how sleep loss can augment one’s endocannabinoid system, a system in the body that can enhance one’s desire to eat high-caloric, fatty foods. When sleep deprived, researchers found a specific chemical in the body (2-AG) runs abnormally high throughout the afternoon and into the evening. For those who are not sleep deprived, 2-AG levels are normally low overnight and begin to rise during the day until they peak in the early afternoon. In this study, the 2-AG levels in sleep-deprived patients continued to rise throughout the afternoon and were sustained into the evening, causing increased hunger and twice the consumption of snacks when compared to participants who slept over eight hours. Although extra hours of wakefulness at night only require a minimal amount of extra caloric intake, when given the opportunity, subjects in this study binged, consuming over 300 calories more than what they needed.  This was true for me!

More sleep, less cravings

  Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

“With a good night’s sleep, you are more likely to control your natural response to indulge in a plate full of cookies,” said Dr. Nofzinger, sleep physician and founder of Ebb Therapeutics. “But, if you haven’t had enough sleep, you are more likely to experience hunger and the desire to eat calorie rich meals, which can lead to weight gain.”

Healthy adults should strive to sleep between seven and nine hours per night with children and adolescents getting even more. In the long term, a consistent lack of sleep is not only correlated with overeating and weight gain, but also a higher body fat composition. According to a 2013 study conducted by Brigham Young University, those with more consistent wake and sleep times had lower amounts of body fat than those who did not have consistent sleep times. Moreover, the study found that those with over 90-minute variations of their wake and sleep times on average had a higher body fat composition compared to those with less than one-hour variations in their sleep and wake times. Finally, people who consistently achieved eight to 8.5 hours of sleep per night had the lowest body fat among the subjects in the study.

Sleep tips

During the holidays, good sleep is even harder to achieve. Holiday stress, costs of gifts, wrapping presents and family parties are all reasons for us to not get enough sleep. Dr. Nofzinger recommends these tips for getting the sleep you need during the holidays:

  • Avoid eating large meals for two hours before bedtime. You can have a small snack 45 min before bedtime if you are hungry.
  • Spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading a book or magazine.
  • Stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time, throughout the week.

It’s important to remember that sleep can help control your cravings for holiday treats and is critical to your overall health. So, stick to a plan of getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep and keep dreaming of sugarplums rather than eating them.


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