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Sleep vs. Superfoods for Weight Loss

Chia

Without naming any names, there are a lot of places where you can get lists of “superfoods” that “blast fat” or “bust your gut” or do some other kind of weight-destroying magic described in language so violent it gets a little disturbing if you think about it too closely. The promise of superfoods is the promise of Just One Thing: regardless of what the rest of your diet and lifestyle look like, this one seed or berry or leaf will have a dramatic effect all by itself.

But if you take a look at the studies on superfoods, you might start noticing something a little funny: a lot of them aren’t all that impressive. So while we’re getting violent about “burning” and “blasting,” here’s a head-to-head battle between sleep and superfoods. Based on studies in humans (not test tubes, rats, or mice) eating actual food (not purified extracts or pills), how do superfoods stack up against the simple, old-fashioned trick of getting enough sleep?

Direct Measurements of Weight Loss

Here are a couple studies on superfoods and weight loss:

The superfood-induced weight loss isn’t terribly impressive. Now for the sleep. It’s hard to find intervention studies on sleep that last as long as the diet/supplement studies. Ensuring sleep deprivation every night is probably more labor- and money-intensive than just giving everyone a pill to take every day and sending them home. What we do have are shorter-term studies and association studies:

It’s frustrating that we don’t have the kind of long intervention studies where subjects stay in a sleep lab every night for several weeks,  but it does look like sleep is coming out ahead here.

Insulin, Hunger, and Other Contributors to Weight Loss

Another way to compare sleep and superfoods for weight loss is to look at short-term effects that might indicate a benefit in the long run. One example is insulin sensitivity: if something improves insulin sensitivity, it will probably be beneficial for weight loss down the line. These effects are easier to measure after just one or two nights in the lab, so it’s easier to compare them.

Insulin Sensitivity

On the superfood side:

To compare that with sleep, take a look at this study. People without diabetes or other metabolic disease got slammed with just one night of sleep restriction (4 hours as opposed to their regular 8). The sleep-deprived subjects all had worse insulin sensitivity. The authors concluded that “Partial sleep deprivation during only a single night induces insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways in healthy subjects.” That’s much stronger evidence for sleep as an insulin-sensitizing intervention than it is for the superfoods.

Hunger, Appetite, and Cravings

On the superfood team, we’ve got…

Sleep has also been studied for its effects on hunger. Here’s one study. The researchers found that sleep deprivation reduced people’s ability to evaluate their food choices while increasing brain activity in regions that motivate consumption. Sleep-deprived people wanted more calorie-dense foods, and if they’d eaten everything they wanted, they would have eaten an extra 600 calories per day, on average.

So far, the evidence suggests that getting enough sleep is a better hunger-reducer than the superfoods.

Inflammation

Superfoods have antioxidants, and antioxidants protect against inflammation, right?

Guess what has a stronger effect on inflammation? Sleep! This meta-analysis of many different studies found that sleep disturbance in general (either too much or too little) was associated with higher levels of the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein and interleukin-6. The individual results varied slightly from study to study, but compared to any of the superfoods above, the evidence for inflammation is on the side of the sleep

Summing it Up

None of this is an argument that superfoods are “bad.” There’s nothing wrong with these foods just because they don’t magically make you thin. Most nutritious foods have no magical obesity-preventing powers, because that’s just not how individual foods work. The point is that “superfoods” don’t look much different from regular nutritious foods in this particular respect. If you want big changes in your body, individual “superfoods” aren’t powerful enough to override all your other diet and lifestyle patterns. The superfood myth of Just One Thing isn’t supported by these studies.

This gets very obvious when you compare the “superfoods” to sleep. At least from the studies we have, sleep appears to have a much more powerful effect on weight and metabolic health than any one particular food.

One important caveat is that many of these foods have few or no studies in humans in diet-relevant amounts. It’s possible that new studies will completely change the comparison. But based on the evidence we have now, sleep looks a lot more “super” than any of these foods.