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Sleep deprivation related to poor food choices for teens, study says

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Between tests, extracurricular activities and all that texting, it’s no wonder only a quarter of U.S. teens get the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep each night.

That’s a lot of exhausted, cranky teenagers — and new research in the journal Sleep adds another reason for parents to let their adolescents sleep in as long as possible. Teens who don’t get enough sleep, the study suggests, consume more sugar and carbohydrates, increasing their risk of metabolic disorders, obesity and mental health challenges.

Teens don’t get enough sleep, and that can affect their health

Researchers analyzed the sleep and eating patterns of 93 adolescents over the course of three weeks. During the study period, the 14-to-17-year-olds woke at the same time every day. The researchers, however, changed their bedtimes throughout the study; one group was given 6.5 hours to sleep a night, while the other group got 9.5.

Predictably, the teens given more time to sleep got about 2 hours and 20 minutes more sleep than their exhausted counterparts.

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Both sets of teens ate approximately the same number of calories per day. But the kind of food they chose varied, and the teens with less sleep ate 72 percent more calories, and 32 percent more carbohydrates, between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.

“Getting less sleep caused teens to eat more junk,” Kara Duraccio, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University who was the study’s lead author, said in a release. “We suspect that tired teens are looking for quick bursts of energy to keep them going until they can go to bed, so they’re seeking out foods that are high in carbs and added sugars.”

Teens who got less sleep also ate fewer vegetables and fruits and drank more sugar-sweetened beverages than their counterparts.

Our brains benefit from sleep. Here’s why, and how parents can help teens get plenty of it.

Since the study lasted only three weeks, the researchers write, it’s unclear whether the tired teens might have normalized their food intake over a longer period. And since the participants were mostly middle-to-upper in socioeconomic class, it’s unclear if the effects would carry over to teens from lower-income brackets.

The researchers say the extra 12 grams of sugar consumed by the sleep-deprived participants would add up to 4.5 pounds of sugar in a school year — all the more reason to attempt to help teens get a reasonable amount of sleep regardless of what’s going on in their overscheduled lives.

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Sleep-deprived kids have gotten a break with remote learning’s later start times. Some hope it’s a wake-up call for schools.