In the largest Australian study into links between sleep and diet, Victorian researchers have found that without a good night’s sleep, women of child-bearing age reach for fattier foods to help them through the day.

Dr Michelle Blumfield, who led a team of researchers from Monash University, assessed the sleeping behaviours and food choices of more than 7,000 Australian women aged 31-36 years.

According to Dr Blumfield, whose work is being presented at the Dietitians Association of Australia’s National Conference in Melbourne this week (19-21 May), women who slept the least (around six hours a night) often had severe tiredness and sleeping difficulties and took in more of their daily kilojoules from fat, and saturated fat.

She also found sleeping difficulties were linked with a heavier body weight, and poorer mental and physical health, as perceived by the study participants.

Dr Blumfield, who is also an Accredited Practising Dietician says that the research shows lack of sleep can lead to poorer dietary choices in women of child bearing age can impact on the health of their children.

She says that improving sleep patterns, in conjunction with dietary and physical activity strategies, may assist women to optimise their dietary intake in preparation for pregnancy.

“A nutritious diet and a healthy body weight before conception and during pregnancy are vital,” she says.

“Poor nutrition and excess body weight can change the intrauterine environment, which affects childhood growth and plays a part in the risk of obesity and certain diseases later in a child’s life.”

Currently one third of Australian women are overweight or obese at the start of pregnancy, which increases the risk for both mother and baby. The research shows a mother’s Body Mass Index (BMI) at the start of pregnancy is a key predictor of her child’s future weight.

“Our sleeping patterns aren’t set in concrete – they can be changed. An easy win to help women, including mums-to-be, improve their diet is to work on getting a better night’s sleep,” Dr Blumfield says.

And what’s not to like about that?

Dietitians Association of Australia President, Liz Kellett encourages all women to focus on the quality of their diet by choosing a wide variety of healthy foods, including plenty of vegetables, along with fruit, wholegrain bread and cereals, lean meats, reduced-fat dairy foods, and healthy fats, from foods like nuts, avocado and olive oil.

For healthy snack ideas during the day, check out our article on healthy office snacks here.