You might not realize it, but the way you eat has a major impact on how much—and how well—you snooze. And the better rested you are, the easier it is to reach or maintain a healthy weight.

Want proof? When Harvard researchers followed some 60,000 women for nearly two decades, those who regularly slept for fewer than 5 hours per night were 32% more likely to gain 13 or more kilograms compared to those who regularly slept for 7 or more hours. When it comes to getting lean, sleep is that important.

Even so, the relationship between sleep and weight is complicated, and experts still have a lot to learn about how the two are connected. What does seem to be clear, though, is that a steady stream of highly processed, inferior food can make it harder to get the quality sleep you need.

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that people who eat diets high in sugar and refined carbs tend to take longer to fall asleep and wake up more frequently during the night. Meanwhile, unhealthy fats could negatively affect your body’s normal sleep-wake cycle, making it harder to doze off at night and wake up refreshed in the morning. In part, that’s because staying up later can seriously impact your ability to make choices that can help you get leaner. When you’re zonked, you simply have less energy for things like shopping for fresh food, preparing clean meals, or even exercising.

To make matters worse, running short on shut-eye makes it harder to resist junky snacks. In fact, one SLEEP study found that sleep deprivation cranks up the pleasurable effects of salty, sugary and fatty foods. And to top it all off, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body prompts you to eat more kilojoules and burn fewer of them. If that’s not an ugly recipe for spending countless unproductive hours watching TV and eating sugary snacks, nothing is.

There’s more to it, though. Eating clean doesn’t just pull you out of the cycle of eating junk food, sleeping poorly and then eating more junk food because you’re sleep-deprived. Clean foods actually deliver the nutrients your body needs to sleep better. Research shows that people with adequate levels of vitamin D—found in foods like eggs, mushrooms, fortified milk and fatty fish—are 33% less likely to experience insomnia than those with insufficient levels of this nutrient. And speaking of fatty fish, some findings suggest that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like tuna and salmon can contribute to a better night’s rest. (So far, the research has been conducted on kids, but it’s likely that adults would reap similar benefits.)

Your body relies on potassium (found in foods like sweet potatoes and bananas) and magnesium (found in foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds) to help your muscles relax so you can drift off to dreamland sooner. And it needs the calcium in foods like plain yogurt and leafy greens in order to produce the hormone melatonin, which tells your body when it’s time to feel sleepy. (A few foods, including tart cherries and walnuts, actually contain melatonin.)

With all of that in mind, it might not come as much of a surprise to learn that people who eat diets high in fibre-rich foods, like many of those just mentioned, report getting deeper, more restful sleep than their processed-food-eating counterparts.

Snack for Better Sleep

Ready to stop counting sheep? Pick an evening snack that helps you drift off to dreamland sooner, like one of these. Enjoy it 2 to 3 hours before going to sleep, since eating too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep.

  • 4 whole grain crackers topped with 1⁄4 cup of cottage cheese: Cottage cheese is rich in protein, which your body needs to make the sleep-promoting amino acid tryptophan. And crackers have carbohydrates, which boost tryptophan’s availability to your brain.
     
  • 225ml of tart cherry juice: Tart cherries are a top source of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating your sleep-wake cycle. Plus, research shows that tart Montmorency cherries can help people with insomnia sleep longer—and better.
     
  • 10 walnut halves: Like tart cherries, walnuts contain melatonin—and eating them has been shown to increase levels of the hormone in your blood, according to a study in Nutrition.
     
  • Half a slice of whole grain toast with 1 tablespoon of almond butter: Both deliver magnesium, which can offer protection against insomnia and sleep-disrupting leg cramps. 
     
  • 225ml of low-fat milk: Many of us struggle with getting enough calcium and vitamin D, but these nutrients can reduce your odds of having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Milk is one of the few foods that serves up both.
     
  • A cup of chamomile tea: This naturally sweet herbal sipper has long been used to promote feelings of calm and relaxation. Plus, it’s kJ-free, so it can help you doze off even if you’ve already reached your snack limit for the day.
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