How does sleep affect dietary patterns in adolescents?

Ingrid is a Registered Nutritionist based in New Zealand. She is a climate change advocate and has a passion for equitable health access and sustainability.

Twitter: @I_M_Nutrition
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By Ingrid Mulder

Associate Registered Nutritionist, BSc, MSc

Quality sleep is a well-known pillar for good health and reducing the risk of poor health in the future. In this article, I will explain a proposed contributing mechanism: the effect of sleep on dietary choices, rather than the poor sleep directly causing adverse health outcomes.

Adolescence is a crucial stage of development where sleep and diet quality can have a large positive or negative impact. This is a time when food autonomy increases.(1) Teens may have more disposable income from part-time jobs and thus more food freedom, which can bring susceptibility to marketing and cheaper convenience foods. The habits teens build at this time can influence their habits in adulthood.(2)

Almost 90% of teens are not getting adequate levels of sleep, according to a 2019 study assessing 3899 adolescents from the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study.(3) In addition to this, teens also require more sleep than adults, about 8-10 hours depending on the individual.(4) 

Teens have the ability to stay awake later due to a natural circadian rhythm shift during puberty, which is not ideal if you are trying to go to sleep early for school the next day.(5)


A randomised crossover trial suggested that after five nights of restricted sleep (repeated three times over three weeks) in healthy 14-16-year-olds, those who experienced restricted sleep had a higher glycaemic load compared with those with unrestricted sleep. They also exhibited higher consumption of calories, carbohydrates, and dessert foods.(6). These findings are consistent with another study that found a higher consumption of fast food and lower consumption of fruit and vegetables in adolescents who reported sleeping for less than seven hours per night (18% of respondents).(7) Another study also concluded a shorter sleep duration can lead to a slight decrease in diet quality the next day, namely a decreased fruit and vegetable intake.(8)

A cross-sectional study conducted in low-income schools in Bangladesh assessed questionnaire data of 1044 adolescents between 13 and 17 years alongside anthropometric data. Authors found a higher likelihood of teens being overweight/obese than underweight with over 15% reporting sleep disturbance or poor sleep quality. However, underweight prevalence was also linked to sleep disturbance and poor sleep quality.(9)

Linking sleep quality with healthy food decision-making and day-to-day cravings in adolescents can potentially reduce the risk of developing chronic diseasessuch as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Teaching adolescents how to improve sleep could improve their sleep quality, thus increasing the rate of healthy decision-making and reducing cravings for high-saturated fat, high-calorie, and high-sugar foods. In addition, teaching adolescents about this link could increase awareness of these cravings and how to manage them when a night of poor sleep happens.

Diet can also, of course, influence sleep. Late-night sugar, caffeine, and alcohol intake are known to negatively impact sleep. A recent study assessing the link between Mediterranean diet (MD) adherence and sleep quality found that those teens who adhere more to the MD were more likely to meet sleep recommendations and fewer sleep issues.(10)

Teaching adolescents about the link between sleep quality and a healthy diet could increase awareness of food cravings and how to manage them when a night of poor sleep happens.


In conclusion, addressing sleep quality poses a strong focus for increasing diet quality and long-term health outcomes. Adequate sleep and sleep quality also affect short-term concentration, fatigue, and energy outcomes too. A teen’s later bedtime can be shifted with time management tools and addressing barriers to an earlier bedtime.(5) A focus on improved diet and better sleep hygiene (reduced screen time, reduced caffeine and sugar intake before bed, a dark room, and reduced stimulus close to bedtime) can improve the sleep quality and consequent effects for adolescents.(4)


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