With the New Year approaching, a lot of weight-loss, shape-up and get-healthy plans are getting readied for go-time, January 2. I’m right there with you. I’m enjoying the holiday season and its indulgences, but already thinking about my health and wellness goals for next year.
While a lot of us are still munching on holiday cookies and raising festive toasts, I thought we’d take a look at how some of today’s most popular eating plans affect sleep.
Keto and Paleo: How they work
A lot of today’s go-to diets emphasize protein and fat and minimize carbohydrates. But different eating plans combine these macronutrients in different ways. Before we dive into their impact on sleep, let’s take a quick look at two of the most popular eating plans, and what they entail.
The Ketogenic Diet. A ketogenic diet (or “keto”) focuses on eating fat (and to a lesser extent, protein) while severely limiting carbohydrates. Severely restricting carbohydrates while feeding the body plenty of fat puts the body in a state of ketosis. In ketosis, our bodies begin to aggressively burn fat for fuel.
The standard keto eating strategy typically breaks down like this: 75 percent fat, 20 percent protein, and 5 percent carbohydrates. A modified, high-protein version of keto adjusts the fat-protein ratio: 60 percent fat, 35 percent protein, and 5 percent carbs.
You might know someone who has tried a ketogenic diet and been thrilled with its weight loss benefits. Studies show that eating on a keto regimen is effective in helping people lose weight. But people are interested in ketogenic eating for more than its power to help shed pounds. Ketogenic diets are being used to help treat—and provide protection against—disease. Studies show ketogenic diets can drastically lower blood sugar and improve insulin resistance, helping to improve diabetes and prediabetes. (Several studies show that some people with diabetes who adopt a ketogenic eating plan are able to stop taking diabetes medication.)
Research indicates that ketogenic diets can improve markers for heart disease, including cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as blood sugar. And keto is being used—and increasingly studied—as a dietary therapy for epilepsy, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- What you eat on a ketogenic diet: Meat, eggs, fish, full-fat, grass-fed dairy and unprocessed cheese, oils including coconut and olive, nuts and seeds, low-carbohydrate vegetables (think greens, tomatoes, broccoli)
- What you avoid on a ketogenic diet: Grains, almost all fruits, beans, root vegetables, sugar, alcohol.
The Paleo diet. Paleo has been popular for several years. This eating plan is based on the premise that the healthiest diet is one that sticks close to what our ancient human ancestors consumed. That means whole, unprocessed foods. Unlike keto, a Paleo diet doesn’t lay out specific ratios of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. That’s up to you, as you eat from a selection of approved foods. In practice, Paleo eating often tends to skew pretty low-carb. When you’re eating paleo, your carbohydrates come mostly from plants, and not from grains or sugars.
We haven’t seen an abundance of research on paleo eating. But studies have shown a paleo diet can improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, lower blood pressure, cholesterol and other markers of heart disease, and help people lose weight. Paleo diets have also been shown to reduce waist circumference, which is associated with heart disease, diabetes and sleep problems, including obstructive sleep apnea.
- What you eat on a paleo diet: Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables (including root vegetables and tubers), fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut, olive, and other healthful oils
- What you don’t eat on a paleo diet: Sugars, grains, legumes, dairy (some paleo eating plans may incorporate full-fat dairy), many vegetable oils, any processed foods or ingredients
How keto and paleo diets affect sleep
Now that we know what some popular diets are about, let’s take a look at how they might affect your sleep. A few things to know up front. While there is a body of research that looks at the relationships of diet, macronutrients, eating patterns and sleep, there’s a relative lack of scientific study that explores how specific diets affect sleep. The Mediterranean diet is among the most well studied, and has shown broad benefits for health and longevity, as well as specific benefits for sleep.
We’re also missing long-term studies on the effects of diet and macronutrients on sleep. Much of the research is limited to short-term investigations of how different combinations and amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats affect our sleep patterns.
That said, there is scientific research that is contributing to an emerging picture of how ketogenic and Paleo diets may impact our sleeping lives. There are a number of studies in progress that explore these now-popular diet trends in relation to sleep and other measurements of health. And other research that examines the effects of macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—can help shed light on what to expect from your sleep when using these dietary plans.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM