Lack of sleep = obesity?

Makes sense. Lack of sleep = more time you could end up eating, and smaller chance of exercising because you’re already tired.

Jean-Philippe Chaput is a junior research chair in healthy lifestyle and obesity at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa and an assistant professor at the school of Human Kinetics at University of Ottawa.

He was in Moncton yesterday to speak at a nutrition and health symposium sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Canada about some of the non-traditional factors that affect a person’s weight.

Lack of sleep is one area Chaput has focused on.

“When people sleep less time, they have more opportunities for eating, they are more likely to snack,” he says, and people who are tired are less likely to engage in vigorous physical activity, both of which can lead to weight gain.

Chaput says not getting enough sleep also stresses the body, causing it to produce more of the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin and reducing its glucose tolerance, among other things.

And more and more of us aren’t getting enough sleep.

Chaput found the proportion of young people in the U.S. getting less than seven hours of sleep a night grew from 15.6 per cent in 1960 to 37.1 per cent in 2001.

But changing your habits can make a difference.

Chaput’s research found that if obese people who normally slept less than six hours a night increased their sleep time, they limited their fat gain over time. Over a six-year period, those who starting sleeping more gained about a kilogram (2.2 pounds) compared to those who continued to get less than six hours a sleep a night who gained closer to four kilograms (8.8 pounds).

If you think getting a good night’s sleep gets you out of getting some exercise, think again.

Chaput says it’s important not to look at any one factor in isolation, plus he says being physically active makes you sleep better and helps manage stress.

But he does believe getting the proper amount of rest is so important that he wants to see Canada issue sleep guidelines in the same way it has the Canada Food Guide and physical activity guidelines. “It’s one of my projects,” he says.

There’s more bad news for those who do their day’s heavy lifting with their brains. Chaput’s research has found mental exertion causes us to eat more, even though it doesn’t use any more energy than relaxing and doing absolutely nothing.

In a study at Université Laval, Chaput compared the food intake of young women. One group was told to relax for 45 minutes, the other was to read a text and summarize it.

Then the women were offered a buffet.

Those who had been reading and writing ate, on average, 230 calories more than their counterparts who had been doing nothing.

“Based on those results, thinking is worse than doing nothing,” Chaput says.

Which is not to say he advises everyone to stop getting any sort of mental workout.

“The solution is not to avoid computers and mental work, but my advice is to be physically active to compensate,” he says.

Chaput says they found peaks and fluctuations in the blood glucose levels of the women who were reading and writing, which may help to explain why they ate more.

“Participants didn’t feel more stressed, but their body was more stressed,” he says.

Chaput found similar results in a study on the impact of playing video games.

He says just being aware that we tend to overeat when we are working our brains might help us make better choices or pay attention to how much food we really are consuming.

Chaput says low calcium intake is also connected to being overweight or obese.

He says obese people prescribed a diet supplemented with calcium lost more weight. He says studies have been done where one group drank milk and another drank rice milk with the same amount of protein, but no calcium and those drinking regular milk lost more weight.

Chaput says that doesn’t mean that milk or calcium supplements is the key to large weight loss, but it does mean it could be an important factor in keeping the population as a whole at a healthy weight.

Overall, consumption of milk has been dropping steadily in Canada, while consumption of sweetened beverages like pop have been steadily increasing.

Chaput says there is no magic pill to solving the problem of obesity.

“When you at the whole picture it is the balance of things in your life,” he says.

Chaput feels we actually put too much emphasis on obesity being a problem.

“It’s too easy to overeat now. You need to change a lot of things to make healthy choices the normal ones,” he says. “Sometimes we try too much to change people. We need to change the environment a bit more.”

Chaput did some of his studies in Denmark. That country was one of the first to ban trans fats.

“So a Big Mac in Copenhagen is healthier than a Big Mac in Canada,” he says.

Not only that, but in Denmark it seems almost everyone owns a bike and uses it regularly to get around.

“Here we build cities for cars,” Chaput says. “There are some policies that could come from the top that will help people more. Just changing one thing won’t help much. It’s a complex condition that will require a complex solution. There is no magic bullet for that.”

Nor is rapid weight loss necessarily a good idea.

Chaput says POPs – persistent organic pollutants – can be found in all humans. They originate in chemicals like DDT and PCBs, and although they are now banned in Canada, they remain in the environment.

Chaput says POPs are stored in fat tissues, so the more obese you are, the more of the chemicals there are in your system.

When you lose weight, the chemicals are released into your bloodstream and can impact thyroid function and impair your metabolism, which may be one of the reasons why most people trying to lose weight hit a plateau at some point and can’t seem to lose any more.

He says the pollutants are linked to some diseases, including Parkinson’s, and says some people who undergo gastric bypass surgery and have radical rapid weight loss sometimes get symptoms of Parkinson’s such as shaking limbs.

“Extreme weight loss to me is not good,” he says.

He says people gain weight over a long period of time and should expect to lose it in the same way.

He also says those who gain a lot of weight and then lose it will always have to fight against weight gain.

“We need to invest more into prevention because it is better not to have a weight problem in the first place,” he says. “That’s easy to say, but tough to do.”

Chaput also advocates a “healthy at every size” approach.

“There are obese people who are very healthy and lean people who are very unhealthy,” he says. “It is really lifestyle that is important.”

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