Poor sleep for children leads to bad diet choices

| August 7, 2018

Research from the University of South Australia found that sleep timing and quality influenced the dietary behaviours of school-aged children, leading to poor nutrition.

The world-first study examined the sleep and eating behaviours of 28,010 school children aged between nine and 17 years from data collected via the South Australian Wellbeing and Engagement Collection from 368 government and independent schools in South Australia.

Results show that children who regularly went to bed after 11pm were four to five times more likely to eat fewer than three breakfasts a week, and two to three times more likely to eat junk food at least five times a week.

The study has been published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Alex Agostini said the findings clearly demonstrated the links between sleep and diet among school-aged children.

“Sleep is important for everyone’s health and wellbeing, but when children and teenagers are regularly missing breakfast or eating junk food, their bodies and minds can suffer,” Dr Agostini said.

“When children have poor sleep and go to bed late at night, it increases their chance of missing breakfast the next morning.

“Late bedtimes also increase the odds of children and teenagers eating junk food more often, which is never a good thing – not only does it lack nutritional benefit, but it also contributes to the growing concerns around childhood obesity.”

The study also strengthens evidence for educational policy relating to the provision of breakfast or pre-lunch nutrition breaks in schools.

According to the Australian Red Cross, skipping breakfast can cause students to feel lethargic and lead to concentration and behavioural difficulties in the school environment. Skipping breakfast can also lead to overeating later in the day, increasing the risk of obesity.

Professor Kurt Lushington, co-researcher and Head of UniSA’s discipline of psychology, said the research found a substantial proportion of children in the study were sleep deprived.

“The National Sleep Foundation recommends 9-11 hours’ sleep for children aged 6-13 years, and 8-10 hours’ sleep for children aged 14-17 years. Yet according to these standards, 16 per cent of children in this study were not getting enough sleep,” Prof Lushington said.

“Good quality sleep – and enough of it – is important for children and adolescents. Without it, children not only develop fatigue and behavioural and emotional problems, but also make poor food choices.

“Encouraging schools to offer breakfast programs and ‘brain food’ breaks earlier in the day can help counteract the effects of poor dietary choices as a result of lack of sleep.

“Promoting healthy sleep and a nutritional diet for children and teenagers is critical if we are to help them realise their best potential, physically and psychologically.”

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Andrew Spence

Andrew Spence is a journalist, editor, leader and manager with more than 13 years experience in the South Australian media industry.