Here in the US, around 12.7 million children and adolescents are considered obese. That’s around 17% of the population aged 2-19. Just think about that for a moment! Nearly one fifth of the kids in this country have a body mass index (BMI) in or above the 95th percentile.
As parents, we tend blame this epidemic on too much screen time, lack of physical playtime, junk food, portion sizes, and the rest of the usual suspects. Make no mistake, those factors definitely shoulder some of the blame, but as it turns out, poor sleeping habits are contributing to the issue as well.
I recently read a study in the British Medical Journal that showed a direct correlation between lack of sleep and obesity in children, and the numbers were shocking. The researchers found that longer sleep duration between ages 3 and 5 resulted in an astounding 61% reduction in the risk of the child being overweight at age 7.
Naturally, I assumed this was probably due to other factors. After all, if parents aren’t getting their kids to bed at a reasonable hour, chances are they’re also not promoting healthy diets and exercise, right?
But here’s the kicker; this study took all of those factors into account, as well as other confounders like household income, fruit and vegetable intake, and the parent’s level of education. Even with all of these factors accounted for, there was still a direct correlation between prolonged lack of sleep and obesity. In fact, each additional hour of sleep was shown to significantly reduce BMI by the time the children involved turned 7.
So why would lack of sleep cause obesity?
Well, there are a few obvious answers. More awake time means more time to eat, and late-night eating usually implies snack food as opposed to fruits and vegetables. A tired child is also less likely to get a proper daily dose of exercise.
But what the study also found, and I’ll try to keep the science lingo to a minimum here, is that hormonal responses trigger an urge to increase energy intake and reduce energy expenditure. This can lead to increased appetite, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, which are all precursors to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is probably the most immediate concern when it comes to obese children, but it’s not even close to the only one. Obese kids are at a greatly elevated risk for a plethora of physical and mental issues, including sleep apnea, asthma, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
Believe me, I know how difficult it can be to find the time and energy to feed your children a healthy, wholesome diet. Between all of the other responsibilities parents have, cooking meals is often one of the areas where we tend to take a lot of shortcuts.
Establishing a proper sleeping routine won’t just help to regulate your child’s hormones. Getting your child to sleep at an early hour can also provide you with the time to shop a little smarter, prep healthy meals, pack some quality lunches, and hey, who knows; you might even find yourself with a few minutes left over for yourself!
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