"We weren't surprised that the successful strategies included some of the tried and true strategies like eating less fat and exercising more," says Nicklas. "Still, we have a significant problem with obesity in our country, and physicians and researchers really need to figure out how to help people maintain their weight loss."
Recent research in the field of sleep is doing just that. In a study presented in June, researchers discovered through brain scans that when participants were restricted to four hours of sleep versus a full night of nine, over a period of five nights, they responded more to images of foods like donuts, candy, and pizza rather than foods like fruits, vegetables, and fish. "Areas of the orbitofrontal cortex and the insula [reward centers in the brain] were more active in response to unhealthy foods during the sleep-restricted condition," says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, lead investigator and a research associate at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center. The day before their scans, participants were also allowed to eat whatever they wanted. When under restricted sleep, participants ate more calories and fat than when they experienced a full night's sleep. "Restricting sleep can enhance the reward value of unhealthy foods and therefore promote their consumption," says St-Onge.
In another study also presented in June, MRI scans showed that areas within the frontal lobe of the brain used for making complex decisions were impaired under sleep deprivation. What was observed was "the sleep-deprived participant making non-optimal food choices due to a failure in integrating important information, such as how healthy a food is," says Stephanie Greer, lead author and a graduate student at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley. "Such non-optimal food choices when sleep deprived could potentially be one reason explaining the known relationship between sleep loss and obesity previously reported in large population studies."
Former surgeon general Richard Carmona once testified before Congress that there is an "obesity crisis in America." That was back in 2003, nearly a decade ago. Today there is an epidemic. Millions of people will continue to suffer and die from obesity-related diseases, but as recent studies have shown, this doesn't have to be. Weight loss is achievable with specific and proven behaviors, experts say: Eat less fat, exercise more, talk to your doctor about prescription weight-loss medications, participate in a weight-loss program, and last but not least, be sure to get enough sleep.