More Than Willpower: Research Into Understanding Obesity

Hungry for More Than Sleep

The Article: Determinants of Shortened, Disrupted, and Mistimed Sleep and Associated Metabolic Health Consequences in Healthy Humans

The Findings: This review article examines the recent research linking sleep disruption with obesity. Studies have shown that both poor sleep quality and an inadequate amount of sleep are linked to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Given that nearly 1 in 3 people in the United States get six hours of sleep or less, this could have a significant effect on health if linked to weight gain and hormonal dysregulation.  

While there is some disagreement in the literature, it seems that poor sleep contributes to weight gain in a number of ways. First is the behavioral component. People who are awake for a greater portion of the day are inclined to eat more. One study found that when people reduced their sleep to four hours a night, they increased food consumption by more than 500 calories. Furthermore, switching the body’s circadian rhythm, as we are forced to do when working night shifts, can wreak havoc on hormone levels that regulate appetite. Some studies have found that reduced sleep leads to increased levels of the hormone that promotes hunger, ghrelin, and decreased levels of the hormone that promotes satiety, leptin. Food also seems to take on greater appeal when we are short on sleep. An imaging study that looked at the brain activity of people who had undergone sleep deprivation found increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain in response to food, compared with those who hadn’t had their sleep curtailed. Unfortunately, just because we are awake longer, we are not necessarily burning off all of those extra calories.

Numerous studies suggest our energy expenditure is the same, or even decreased, when we don’t get enough sleep. In short, too little sleep can do more than just leave you feeling groggy – it can have a real impact on your waistline, and your overall health.

A Complicated Issue

There is often a great deal of self-blame regarding obesity, as if it represents a certain laziness, lack of willpower or other moral shortcoming on the part of the individual. This can lead to a sense of failure and shame for those who struggle with their weight. These articles illustrate how complex the development of obesity is, involving everything from our genes and childhood stressors to our environment and sleep habits. But this does not mean that obesity in adulthood is inevitable or that it cannot be changed. If you are dealing with obesity, start by recognizing that many factors — some outside your control — have likely contributed to your weight gain.
Having greater compassion and understanding for yourself can be the first step toward greater health. By recognizing that obesity often develops over the course of a lifetime, it is no surprise that quick fixes and crash diets are ineffective, because they ignore the much deeper issues affecting our minds and bodies that contribute to our weight. Addressing obesity requires a whole-person approach to deal with the psychological and physiological drivers. In future posts, I’ll focus on the effects of obesity on the mind and body, as well as how we can work toward positive change for better health and well-being.



Apalasamy YD, Mohamed Z. Obesity and genomics: role of technology in unraveling the complex genetic architecture of obesity. Hum Genet. 2015 Apr;134(4):361-74.

Cedernaes J, Schiöth HB, Benedict C. Determinants of shortened, disrupted, and mistimed sleep and associated metabolic health consequences in healthy humans. Diabetes. 2015 Apr;64(4):1073-80.

Liu H, Umberson D.  Gender, stress in childhood and adulthood, and trajectories of change in body mass. Soc Sci Med. 2015 Aug;139:61-9.

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  • ortal kamer September 29, 2015 at 6:14 am

    new way to look on obesity

  • Roz Warren August 17, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Fascinating. As somebody who has never been a big eater, it seems quite likely to me that “will power” is a useless over-simplification of a complicated reality. I don’t overeat, not through any exercise of “will power” but because, for whatever reason, I’ve never been that into food. Clearly, studying why some of us want to eat a lot and others don’t is a lot more productive than telling folks who want to eat a lot that they shouldn’t.