If you've ever stayed up too late, got up too early, and grabbed, say, a pint of ice-cream rather than a cup of yoghurt for breakfast, there may be very good reason for your morning sweet tooth: In a study exploring the relationship between obesity and sleep deprivation, researchers from St. Luke's – Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University found that the mere sight of unhealthy food triggers “reward centers” in the brains of those who are sleep deprived; this, in turn, results in choosing things like doughnuts over granola as one's first meal of the day. Staving off obesity, then, would be yet another reason — in addition to staving off general crankiness — for getting a decent night of sleep.

In the study, images of healthy and unhealthy foods were shown to 25 men and women after they had four or nine hours of sleep. An MRI recorded their brain responses to the images. When those on just four hours of rest were shown photos of unhealthy foods, the reward centers of their brains were activated; in contrast, those same areas were not similarly triggered in the brains of those who slept for the full nine hours. Or, as the researchers explain, “The unhealthy food response was a neuronal pattern specific to restricted sleep.”

Researchers then tracked the subjects' food choices and found that “participants ate more overall and consumed more fat after a period of sleep restriction compared to regular sleep.” In effect, operating on too little sleep means you're more likely to see fatty and other unhealthy foods as rewarding, and thus probably will result in eating in a good quantity of those foods in response to the brain's signals.

The study was presented earlier this week at the SLEEP 2012 conference in Boston.

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