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Sleep Medicine xxx (2013) xxx–xxx

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Sleep Medicine
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Original Article

Sleep and eating in childhood: a potential behavioral mechanism

underlying the relationship between poor sleep and obesity
Julia Burt a,b, Laurette Dube a, Louise Thibault a, Reut Gruber a,b,⇑
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Attention, Behavior and Sleep Lab, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Quebec, Canada

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Objective: The goal of our study was to examine the associations between sleep and eating behaviors.
Received 7 May 2013 Specifically, we examined associations between sleep duration and continuity with behaviors that pro-
Received in revised form 8 July 2013 mote eating regardless of true physiologic hunger state including emotional (food intake in response
Accepted 14 July 2013
to emotional distress) external (eating in response to the sight or smell of food), and restrained eating
Available online xxxx
(a paradoxical behavior; food intake is initially reduced to lose or maintain body weight, but followed
by increased consumption and binge eating).
Participants: Fifty-six children (29 boys; 27 girls) ages 5 to 12 years participated in the study. Mean age
Eating behaviors
was 7.7 ± 1.9 years, and average body mass index (BMI) was within the healthy range (17.8 ± 4.3 kg/m2).
Children Methods: Sleep duration, continuity and schedule were assessed using actigraphy and self-reports. The
Emotional eating Child Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire-modified version (DEBQ-M) was used to examine levels of
External eating emotional, external and restrained eating in the children.
Restrained eating Results: Associations between the sleep and eating behaviors were examined using partial correlations
and multiple regression analyses. External eating score was negatively associated with sleep duration;
emotional eating score was associated with lower levels of sleep continuity; and restrained eating score
were associated with a later sleep start and later bedtime.
Conclusions: Short sleep duration and poor sleep continuity were associated with higher levels of eating
behaviors shown to be associated with increased food intake. Therefore, sleep loss may be associated
with diminished self-regulation of appetite in children, increasing the risk for overeating and obesity.
Ó 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

1. Background that mediate the relationship between sleep deprivation, food in-
take, and obesity have been characterized, the psychologic and
The prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity has signif- behavioral aspects of this relationship have not been investigated.
icantly increased in the past three decades, creating a major public Investigating this relationship is critical, as it will result in a better
health concern [1–3]. There is a substantial amount of evidence understanding of factors that are associated with increased eating,
supporting the causal relationship between sleep deprivation, and therefore can help identify targets for the prevention of child-
overeating, and obesity. Sleep plays a significant role in restorative hood obesity.
processes in the body and energy metabolism; for example, it is a Psychologic aspects of eating behavior, such as eating in
mediating factor in glucose metabolism [4] and controls the activ- response to emotional states (for example, anxiety) or external
ity of the appetite-regulating hormones [5]. Sleep loss, in effect, has cues of food (such as sight or smell) play a significant role in over-
been linked to disturbances in metabolic function, such as in- eating and the development of excess body weight [7–11]. Higher
creases in ghrelin (an appetite-stimulating hormone) and de- levels of eating behaviors that promote food intake as a response to
creases in leptin (an appetite-suppressing hormone) that internal or external cues unrelated to the physiologic need to eat
promote food intake [6]. Although the physiologic mechanisms have been associated with increased body mass index (BMI) and
waist circumference in individuals of all ages [7]. Specifically,
behaviors that suggest diminished self-control in the presence of
⇑ Corresponding author. Address: Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, food, such as emotional (food intake in response to emotional dis-
Douglas Mental Health University Institute, 6875 LaSalle Blvd., Verdun, Quebec tress), external (eating in response to the sight or smell of food),
H4H 1R3, Canada. Tel.: +1 (514) 761 6131x3476; fax: +1 (514) 762 3858. and restrained eating (a paradoxical behavior; food intake is ini-
E-mail addresses: (J. Burt), tially reduced to lose or maintain body weight, but followed by in-
(L. Dube), (L. Thibault),
(R. Gruber).
creased consumption and binge eating) have all been associated

1389-9457/$ - see front matter Ó 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Please cite this article in press as: Burt J et al. Sleep and eating in childhood: a potential behavioral mechanism underlying the relationship between poor
sleep and obesity. Sleep Med (2013),
2 J. Burt et al. / Sleep Medicine xxx (2013) xxx–xxx

with increased BMI and waist circumference in individuals of all For example: ‘‘If food smells and looks yummy, do you eat a lot of
ages [7–11]. For instance, Webber et al. [7] examined eating behav- it?’’) and restrained eating (a paradoxical behavior; food intake is
ior and weight in children ages 7 to 9 years, and determined that initially reduced to lose or maintain body weight, but followed
obese subjects had increased scores for a variety of eating behav- by increased consumption and binge eating. For example: ‘‘Do
iors shown to promote food intake, such as emotional overeating you try to eat only a little when you want to eat a lot?’’). All three
[7]. This type of relationship has been observed throughout studies eating behaviors induce increased food intake regardless of true
when controlling for confounding factors known to be associated physiologic hunger state. The scale includes 33 questions with
with food intake and weight gain, including age, sex, ethnicity, three possible answers: yes (1 point), sometimes (2 points), and
parental education, television watching and physical activity. no (3 points) answered by participant’s parents. The numbers were
Although a strong relationship between sleep deprivation, in- reversed when entered into the database so that a higher score
creased food intake, and obesity has been documented, only a would indicate higher levels of disordered eating. The modified
small number of studies have examined how aspects of eating DEBQ is deemed an appropriate measure to assess eating behavior
behavior may be related to sleep quantity and quality. In healthy in boys and girls, and both obese and normal weight children ages
adults, it has been demonstrated that reduced subjective sleep 7 to 12 years [12,13]. The DEBQ-M also shows good internal reli-
quality scores are associated with increased behaviors that are ability and consistency between subscales, with Chronbach a val-
shown to promote overeating, including cognitive restraint (the ues of 0.80, 0.82, and 0.68 for emotional, restrained, and external
conscious restriction of food), binge eating (periods of uncon- eating, respectively [12].
trolled, excessive food intake), and emotional eating (food intake
in response to emotional distress) [10]. 2.3.2. Sleep measures
The objective of our study was to examine the relationship be- Actigraphy. Actigraphs (AW64 series) were used to assess
tween sleep and emotional (food intake in response to emotional participants’ sleep patterns in their natural home environment.
distress) external (eating in response to the sight or smell of food), These computerized wristwatch-like devices collect data gener-
and restrained eating (a paradoxical behavior; food intake is ini- ated by movements. They are minimally invasive and allow sleep
tially reduced to lose or maintain body weight, but followed by in- to be recorded reliably without interfering with the family’s rou-
creased consumption and binge eating behaviors, all of which tine. Actigraphy has been widely used to assess sleep and has been
represent a disrupted self-control in the presence of food, causing validated against polysomnography with agreement rates for min-
an individual to eat regardless of true physiologic hunger state. We ute-by-minute sleep–wake identification >90% [14,15]. One-min-
hypothesized that short sleep duration and decreased sleep conti- ute epochs were used to analyze actigraphic sleep data. The
nuity would be associated with increased levels of emotional, reported bedtime and wake time (provided by the sleep logs) were
external and restrained eating in children. used as the start and end times for the analyses. For each 1-min
epoch, the total sum of activity counts was computed. If they ex-
ceeded a threshold (threshold sensitivity value = mean score in ac-
2. Methods
tive period/45), then the epoch was considered waking. If it fell
below that threshold, then it was considered sleep.
2.1. Participants
Actigraphic data were analyzed using sleep software (Actiware
Sleep 3.4, Mini-Mitter) and included the following parameters: (a)
This study comprised 56 medically healthy children aged 5 to
bedtime – the time the child got in bed; (b) sleep start – the begin-
12 years. Children were recruited using newspaper advertise-
ning of sleep; (c) sleep end – the end of sleep; (d) get up time – the
ments. Exclusion criteria were as follows: (1) any medical condi-
time the child got out of bed; (e) actual sleep time – the amount of
tion that would interfere with study protocol and testing,
time (in minutes) between sleep start and sleep end, scored as
including breathing problems such as asthma, diabetes mellitus,
sleep according to the Actiware-sleep algorithm; (f) assumed sleep
and epilepsy; and (2) food allergy or intolerance.
– the difference in time between the sleep end and the sleep start
times; (g) sleep efficiency – the percent time in bed that is actually
2.2. Procedure spent sleeping and was calculated by dividing the actual sleep time
by the time in bed and multiplying by 100; (h) sleep latency – the
To assess sleeping patterns, participant’s sleep was evaluated amount of time (in minutes) taken from bedtime until the subject
for seven consecutive nights using actigraphy in the child’s home falls asleep; (i) sleep bouts – the number of continuous blocks of
environment. Children were asked to maintain normal sleep–wake sleep, one or more epochs in length, scored as asleep between sleep
patterns, and actiwatches were worn each night shortly before bed start and sleep end; (j) wake bouts – the number of continuous
until shortly after waking. A daily sleep log was used along with blocks of wakefulness, one or more epochs in length, scored as
actigraphy in which participants answered questions regarding awake between sleep start and sleep end; (k) mean length of sleep
sleep and wake times, sleepiness, overall mood, and medication in- bouts (mean sleep bout time) – the average length of blocks of con-
take. To evaluate eating behavior, parents filled out the child Dutch tinuous sleep, calculated by dividing the actual sleep time by the
eating questionnaire (DEBQ-M) [12], which assessed levels of emo- number of sleep bouts; and (l) mean length of awake bouts (mean
tional, external, and restrained eating. awake bout time) – the average length of the blocks of continuous
wakefulness, calculated by dividing the actual awake time by the
2.3. Measures number of wake bouts.
Bedtime, sleep start, sleep end, and get up time were used as
2.3.1. Eating behavior measure measures of sleep schedule, actual sleep time was used as a mea- Child Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire. The DEBQ-M, sure of average sleep duration, and sleep efficiency, sleep latency,
modified from the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire for use sleep bouts, and wake bouts were used as measures of sleep
in children [12] was used to examine the children’s eating behav- continuity.
ior. The DEBQ-M focuses on the three types of eating behavior, Actual sleep time was chosen because we regarded the associa-
including emotional (food intake in response to emotional distress. tion between sleep and cognitive and physiologic processes as
For example: ‘‘Does feeling unhappy or upset ever make you want determined by the actual time spent asleep, rather than the overall
to eat?’’) external (eating in response to the sight or smell of food. time spent in bed.

Please cite this article in press as: Burt J et al. Sleep and eating in childhood: a potential behavioral mechanism underlying the relationship between poor
sleep and obesity. Sleep Med (2013),
J. Burt et al. / Sleep Medicine xxx (2013) xxx–xxx 3 Daily sleep logs. Daily sleep logs were completed by parents similar to the time spent in bed but differed from the average dura-
and included information regarding children’s bedtimes and wak- tion of actual sleep time, as expected.
ing times.
3.2. Relationship between sleep and eating measures

2.4. Statistical analysis

3.2.1. Correlation analyses Association between restrained eating and sleep. Positive
Descriptive statistics were computed for all variables. To
associations were observed between restrained eating score and
examine the relationship between sleep and eating behavior, par-
both bedtime and sleep start (P < .05), indicating that both a later
tial Pearson product moment correlation coefficients were calcu-
bedtime and sleep start were associated with higher restrained
lated between sleep duration, schedule and continuity and DEBQ
eating scores. No other significant associations were observed be-
scores, with age, BMI, and waist circumference as covariates. To
tween restrained eating and any other sleep variables (Table 2).
determine the proportion of variance in eating behavior scores
explained by each sleep variable, relationships between sleep Association between emotional eating and sleep. Emotional
duration, schedule and continuity, and eating behaviors (emo-
eating was negatively correlated with mean sleep bout time
tional, external and restrained eating) were tested using multiple
(P < .05) and positively correlated with number of wake bouts
linear regression analyses, adjusted for potential confounders of
(P < .01), indicating that a higher emotional eating score was asso-
age and BMI.
ciated with a lower average sleep bout time and a higher average
All analyses were conducted using PASW Statistics Version 18.0,
number of wake bouts throughout the night. (Table 2).
and a P value of <.05 was used to indicate statistical significance. Association between external eating and sleep. Sleep duration
3. Results was negatively correlated with external eating score (P < .05), indi-
cating that higher external eating scores were associated with
3.1. Descriptive statistics shorter average sleep duration (Table 2).

Means and standard deviations (SD) for age, anthropometric 3.2.2. Multiple regression analyses
characteristics and measures of sleep, and eating behavior are pre- Multiple linear regression analyses were performed to deter-
sented in Table 1. Mean BMI was within a healthy range for sex and mine possible associations between sleep and emotional, external,
age (17.8 ± 4.3 kg/m2), and average actual sleep time was and restrained eating scores on the DEBQ-M.
7.89 ± 0.53 h per night. Average duration of time spent in bed
was 9.34 ± 0.6 h per night. Based on parental reports on the sleep Regression analysis of the association between restrained
log, the average times children went to bed and awoke were eating and sleep. Sleep start and bedtime were negatively associ-
21.11 and 07.07, respectively, for an average reported sleep dura- ated with restrained eating score (b = 0.41, P < .05; b = 0.40,
tion of 9.93 ± 0.87 h per night. Parents’ reports were therefore P < .05, respectively) and the full models explained 13.5% and
14% of the variance, respectively. This finding indicated that later
sleep start and bedtime were associated with higher restrained
Table 1 eating scores in a manner independent of age or BMI.
Means and standard deviations for age, anthropometric characteristics, sleep, and
eating measures (N = 56). Regression analysis of the association between emotional
Measure Mean SD eating and sleep. Emotional eating score was positively associated
Age 7.7 1.9 with the number of wake bouts (b = 0.40, P < .005), and negatively
Anthropometric characteristics
Weight (kg) 32.4 13.2
BMI (kg/m2) 17.8 4.3 Table 2
Waist circumference (cm) 65 12.8 Results of partial correlation analyses studying associations between sleep factors and
eating behaviors controlling for age, body mass index, and waist circumference.
Sleep log
Reported bedtime 21:11 0:58 DEBQ-M
Reported wake time 7:07 0:35
Emotional External Restrained
Reported sleep duration 595.9 52.2
Sleep schedule
Bedtime .092 .215 .395*
Bed time 20:53 1:00
Sleep start .061 .225 .401*
Get up time 7:09 0:40
Get up time .019 .162 .167
Schedule Sleep start 21:17 0:58
Sleep end .061 .225 .166
Sleep end 6:50 0:42
Sleep latency (min) 25.7 17.6 Sleep continuity
Duration Assumed sleep time (min) 561.6 35.9 Efficiency .088 .097 .209
Actual sleep time (min) 473.4 31.6 Mean sleep bout time .476* .014 .150
Sleep latency (min) 25.7 17.6 Number of sleep bouts .206 .021 .249
Continuity Sleep efficiency 76.2 11.1 Mean wake bout time .206 .202 .173
Sleep bouts (No.) 35.5 6 Number of wake bouts .485** .085 .044
Wake bouts (No.) 34.6 7.9 Latency .187 .057 .151
Mean sleep bout time (min) 14.52 5.013
Sleep duration
Mean wake bout time (min) 2.96 2.12
Actiwatch average actual sleep .138 .354* .101
DEBQ-M duration
Emotional score 34.2 7.1
External score 20.3 4.5 Abbreviations: DEBQ, the Child Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire-modified
Restrained score 26.2 4.5 version.
All variables from actigraphy data excluding CSHQ sleep duration.
Abbreviations: SD, standard deviation; BMI, body mass index; min, minutes; No., P < .05.
number; DEBQ-M, the Child Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire-modified version. P < .01.

Please cite this article in press as: Burt J et al. Sleep and eating in childhood: a potential behavioral mechanism underlying the relationship between poor
sleep and obesity. Sleep Med (2013),
4 J. Burt et al. / Sleep Medicine xxx (2013) xxx–xxx

associated with mean sleep bout time (b = 0.44, P < .05). The full circuitry [33], and it has been suggested that just as staying awake
models explained 13.5% and 14% of the variance, respectively, indi- is intrinsic to the regulation of feeding, the availability of food is
cating that sleep continuity contributed to emotional eating scores critical for shaping wake–sleep cycles [33]. Animal studies strongly
in a manner independent of age or BMI. support an association between the timing of food availability or
deprivation and circadian sleep–wake rhythms. For example, labo- Regression analysis of the association between external eating ratory rats, which typically are nocturnal, can be changed into
and sleep. A significant negative association was observed between diurnal animals by restricting food intake to a time window during
sleep duration and external eating scores (b = 0.35, P < .05) and daylight hours [24–27]. Food availability is most likely one of a
the full model explained 11% of the variance. This finding suggests range of variables that can affect the circadian patterning by allow-
that lower sleep duration contributes to the observed variance in ing it to adjust to a wide range of environmental exigencies, result-
external eating scores in a manner independent of age or BMI. ing in patterns of circadian activity of wakefulness, feeding, and
body temperatures that are most adaptive for survival [28–33].
In our study, restricted eating was associated with delayed circa-
4. Discussion dian tendencies, manifested in later bedtime and sleep start. In
light of the work described above, we suggest that restricted eating
The main goal of our study was to examine the relationship be- may have affected the patterning of circadian rhythms and may
tween sleep duration and continuity and emotional, external and have contributed to delayed circadian tendencies. Because our
restrained eating in a sample of healthy children ages 5 to 12 years. study was correlational, we could not determine if this was the
The study extended previous research by examining, the psycho- case, but the association observed and the results of animal studies
logic and behavioral aspects of the interplay between sleep and linking restricted eating to changes in circadian mechanisms sug-
eating for the first time. gest that additional studies are needed to assess the interplay be-
In addition, the use of objective methodology to assess sleep in tween circadian mechanisms and food availability in humans,
the participants’ natural home environment for several consecu- particularly in children.
tive nights allowed to accurately and objectively determine habit-
ual sleep duration. Our main findings were: (1) decreased sleep
duration was associated with higher levels of external eating; (2) 4.2. Clinical implications
decreased sleep continuity was associated with increased emo-
tional eating; and (3) later bedtime and sleep start were correlated Our findings suggest that insufficient and poor sleep are associ-
with increased restrained eating. These findings are consistent ated with eating behaviors shown to promote overeating and in-
with the only study to date that has examined the interplay among crease obesity risk in children, and this relationship can be used
these variables in adults [10]. That study showed that poor sleep to determine behavioral targets for the prevention of childhood
quality was associated with higher levels of hunger, cognitive re- obesity. We suggest that an assessment of a child’s risk factors
straint, and emotional eating. for obesity should include an assessment of sleep habits, dietary
intake, as well as specific eating patterns and behaviors which
may promote weight gain and obesity, including emotional, exter-
4.1. Each eating behavior was associated with a different aspect of
nal, and restrained eating. Using a log to assess sleep duration,
quality, and eating patterns would be beneficial to help identify
this association and permit the family or child to observe how
Sleep duration was negatively associated with external eating,
these factors may be interrelated, so that they can monitor and
suggesting that children who habitually sleep less are more likely
modify them if necessary.
to consume food due to external sensory influences such as sight
or smell.
Four brain circuits are thought to be involved in overeating: re- 4.3. Limitations and future directions
ward–saliency, motivation–drive, learning–conditioning, and
inhibitory control–emotional regulation–executive function [16]. Limitations of our study should be noted. First, it is important to
Because short sleep duration impairs children’s executive function- recognize that the findings were correlational in nature, meaning
ing [15], it can reduce the activity of the circuits related to control that no causation or directionality between sleep loss and eating
and inhibition leading to a poor ability to resist temptation and to behaviors can be inferred. Second, both eating behaviors and sleep
exert self-control in the presence of food [17], i.e., to increased lev- are affected by a variety of biologic, social, and cultural factors,
els of external eating. Future studies should investigate the moder- such as education level, household income, and other familial fac-
ating role of sleep deprivation on intermediate neurocognitive tors. For example, parental control is a significant variable to con-
phenotypes related to executive dysfunction associated with sider when examining eating behavior. High parental control may
excessive eating. Differences between individuals in these areas diminish the child’s own self-regulating mechanism of food con-
are likely to contribute to the differences in vulnerability to over- sumption and they may consequently focus on external cues or
weight and obesity. emotions to govern their intake [21,22]. Therefore, future studies
Dietary restraint has been demonstrated in children as young as examining parental influence and other potential confounding fac-
five years of age [18] and is shown to be correlated with psycho- tors on eating behaviors are needed. Third, the study-population
logic factors such as weight concern and body image [19]. Because are only non-overweight children. According to the continuum
cognitive suppression of hunger is paradoxically a risk factor for hypothesis, eating behavior in individuals with different levels of
overeating, it has been suggested that it is a risk factor for obesity pathology may share certain neurobiologic correlates and neural/
in children [20]. Our results indicate that this behavior may be central nervous system circuitry pathways related to food reward
associated with a later bedtime and sleep start. systems but vary in the frequency or severity of these traits
These findings are consistent with results suggesting an associ- [34,35]. Hence, while our results apply only to typically developing
ation between eating behavior and circadian sleep mechanisms. non-overweight children, the inclusion of overweight or obese
There is evidence that circadian processes are related to eating children would likely increase the range of variation in weight;
behavior, in particular to food availability or restriction. Circuitry thus the identified associations may be even stronger than those
that governs sleep and wakefulness is intimately related to feeding obtained here.

Please cite this article in press as: Burt J et al. Sleep and eating in childhood: a potential behavioral mechanism underlying the relationship between poor
sleep and obesity. Sleep Med (2013),
J. Burt et al. / Sleep Medicine xxx (2013) xxx–xxx 5

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Please cite this article in press as: Burt J et al. Sleep and eating in childhood: a potential behavioral mechanism underlying the relationship between poor
sleep and obesity. Sleep Med (2013),