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Unable to get a good night’s sleep? Ultra-processed food may once again be to blame, a new study suggests

Unable to get a good night’s sleep? Ultra-processed food may once again be to blame, a new study suggests
The thought of all those calories in that guilty snack keeping you up at night? The calories may not be the only thing in that packet of food leaving you restless in bed, it turns out!

If you compare a cob of corn to a packet of chips, there’s a clear difference between the two. The corn may be harvested from a corn field, cleaned, then canned or frozen before it arrives on your plate. Meanwhile, to make a packet of potato chips, the potatoes need to be harvested, peeled, sliced, blanched, dewatered… *deep breath*... fried, deoiled, seasoned, and finally bagged. You can clearly see which of the two items constitutes an “ultra-processed” food.

Despite the bad cred it might receive, processing inherently isn’t a bad thing. However, when edibles undergo a ton of modification to improve taste or extend shelf life, they often end up losing essential nutrients and fibres. Additives such as preservatives and sweeteners in ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have also long been linked to health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. Now, a new study suggests they might also contribute to chronic insomnia in some people.

Researchers in France conducted a study involving 38,570 adults, examining dietary data alongside sleep patterns to uncover potential links between food consumption and sleep quality. Their findings have revealed a significant association between high UPF consumption and an increased risk of chronic insomnia, even after accounting for sociodemographic, lifestyle, diet quality, and mental health factors.

Of the study participants with a heavy dependence on processed food (deriving 16% of their daily energy from UPFs) 19.4% reported chronic insomnia symptoms. Interestingly, the data also suggested a slightly stronger association in men.

While the exact mechanisms behind the UPF-fuelled insomnia remains unclear, the researchers have some hunches. Processed food generally sports a higher calorie content, which could lead to weight gain in the consumers. A higher body mass index has been consistently linked to sleep disorders, such as difficulty falling and staying asleep. However, more research is needed to conclusively form a definite link into how these foods might affect sleep quality.

Previous research has already shown a connection between the Mediterranean diet — considered by many medical associations to be the healthiest diet in the world — and a lower risk of insomnia. This new study might be highlighting the flip side of that relationship.

As our diets increasingly consist of ultra-processed foods, understanding their impact on sleep becomes crucial. The Indian Council of Medical Research has recently provided an updated dietary guideline that should help in deciding our intake for the day. In the meantime, skip the midnight binge; opt for something healthy instead, if you must!

The findings of this research have been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and can be accessed here.


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