Sleepy Brains Drawn to Junk Food

As any college student or shift worker will tell you, staying up all night or even just skimping on sleep can lead a person to seek out satisfying, calorie-packed foods.

An emerging body of research suggests that sleep-related hunger and food cravings, which may contribute to weight gain, are fuelled in part by certain gut hormones involved in appetite. But our brain, and not just our belly, may play a role as well.

According to two small studies presented today at a meeting of sleep researchers in Boston, sleep deprivation appears to increase activity in areas of the brain that seek out pleasure—including that provided by junk food. To make matters worse, sleepiness also may dampen activity in other brain regions that usually serve as a brake on this type of craving.

In one of the studies, researchers at Columbia University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow in the brain, to compare brain activity in 25 volunteers following a normal night’s sleep (about eight hours) and a night in which they were limited to just four hours.

In each case, the researchers performed the scans while showing the volunteers images of unhealthy foods interspersed with healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and oatmeal. Brain networks associated with craving and reward were more active when the participants were sleep-deprived than when they were well-rested—especially when the participants viewed the images of unhealthy foods.

“The pleasure-seeking parts of the brain were stimulated after an individual was sleep-deprived,” says lead researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., a research associate at the university’s New York Obesity Research Center. “People went for foods like pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, and cake.”

St-Onge and other researchers working in this field suspect that tired people gravitate to high-calorie foods because their bodies and brains are seeking an extra energy boost to help them get through the day. “We hypothesize that the restricted-sleep brain reacts to food stimuli as though it [were] food deprived,” St-Onge says.

Previous studies have established a link between sleep deprivation and obesity, although it remains unclear how sleep might affect weight gain (or vice versa). In an effort to unravel the relationship, researchers have begun exploring how insufficient sleep influences hormones and appetite. Several recent studies—including one led by St-Onge—have found that people who are sleep deprived tend to snack more and consume more calories.

Hunger and cravings may not be the only factors, however. A second study presented today suggests that so-called higher-order brain functions—those that help up us weigh pros and cons and make complex choices, including about what we eat—may be compromised by a lack of sleep.




Cure Runner’s Knee

Patellofemoral pain syndrome got its nickname for an obvious and very unfortunate reason–it’s common among runners. The stress of running can cause irritation where the kneecap (patella) rests on the thighbone. The resulting pain can be sharp and sudden or dull and chronic, and it may disappear while you’re running, only to return again afterward. While biomechanical issues may be to blame, the cause can often be traced back to poorly conditioned quadriceps and tight hamstrings. Weak quads aren’t able to support the patella, leading it to track out of alignment, and inflexible hamstrings can put pressure on the knee. If you want to treat and avoid another bout with runner’s knee, add strengthening and stretching to your routine. The three-step quadriceps exercise below is a good place to start. It works the muscles on the front, inside, and outside of your thigh. Do 10 reps of each part on both legs.

Quad Strengthener

Front Thigh: Lie on your back with an ankle weight on your right leg. Fully extend that leg and lock your knee. Keeping your foot relaxed and in a neutral position, lift your leg straight up toward your head as far as you can. Your goal should be to position your leg perpendicular to your body. Return to the starting position.

Inner Thigh: Do the same exercise, but this time, turn out your right leg (toes pointing away from you) to target your inner thigh muscles.

Outer Thigh: Repeat the same exercise again with your right leg turned in (toes pointing toward you) to isolate the muscles of your outer thigh.




The X9i Gets Raving Review on the “Wellness Wire”

One of our favorite bloggers, Well+Good NYC, has featured the one and only—NordicTrack Incline Trainer X9i! The well-known and beloved blog gives the X9i a raving review that will make you want to start climbing those hills stat. Click here to read the article.

Have you worked out on the NordicTrack X9i? What was your favorite feature on this feature-full machine?


Tasty Tuesday: Quinoa 101

Cultivated in the Andes for over 5,000 years, quinoa has been called the “mother grain” and “the gold of the Incas.” Today, the popularity of quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is growing steadily as people discover its pleasant nutty taste and superfood qualities. As a complete protein source also high in iron, magnesium, and fiber, quinoa is not only one of our healthiest pantry staples, but also one that’s incredibly easy and quick to cook.

We’ve read that there are 1,800(!) varieties of quinoa, but just three main types are found in markets here: the most common white variety, as well as a red one and a black one. Here is our standard method for cooking any of these.

1. Measure and rinse quinoa. One cup of dried quinoa yields about 3 cups cooked. Measure out quinoa, place it in a fine-mesh strainer, rinse thoroughly with cool water, and drain. Rinsing removes quinoa’s natural coating, called saponin, which can make it taste bitter or soapy. Although boxed quinoa is often pre-rinsed, it doesn’t hurt to give the seeds an additional rinse at home.

2. Place quinoa in a small saucepan with liquid. Quinoa may be cooked in water or vegetable or meat stock. We use a 2:1 ratio – 2 cups liquid to 1 cup quinoa. Use a larger saucepan if you are cooking more than this basic amount.

3. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed. You should see tiny spirals (the germ) separating from and curling around the quinoa seeds. (see picture below)

4. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve. Some people like to add olive oil, butter, salt, or pepper. Cooked quinoa can also be used as the basis for pilafs, salads, breakfast porridges, and more.

Nutrition Facts, 1 cup cooked quinoa, 185g: 222 cal, 39g carb, 4g fat, 8g protein, 5g fiber, iron 15% DV, good source Vit E, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, estimated glycemic load 18

Quinoa Salad with Grapes
Serves 4


1 cup quinoa
2 cups water 
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 cup grapes
2 teaspoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons verjus
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt


Rinse and drain quinoa in a fine strainer. Place quinoa and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until water is absorbed and quinoa is fluffy. Transfer quinoa to a bowl and cool at least to room temperature.

Toast almonds in a skillet until golden brown (watch them carefully and shake the pan; they will toast quickly!). Set aside to cool.

Cut grapes in half and coarsely chop the marjoram. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the verjus and grapeseed oil. Add salt and whisk to combine.

Once quinoa has cooled, add grapes, almonds, marjoram, and dressing. Toss to combine.

May be served at room temperature or chilled.

Have you cooked with quinoa before? What is your favorite recipe that includes quinoa?



Tasty Tuesday: Independence Day Vegetable Pasta

We have a delicious recipe to add to your Independence Day BBQ. This fresh vegetable pasta is sure to win everyone’s approval.



Prepare lightly oiled grill for medium heat (or use grill pan). Coat zucchini, eggplant, and onions on both sides with olive oil spray, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Grill vegetables (in batches if necessary), turning, until golden brown and tender, about 6 minutes. Transfer to cutting board and cut into bite-size pieces.

Cook pasta per package directions. Drain and immediately toss in serving bowl with pesto, tomatoes, and grilled vegetables. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with pine nuts.

What are you doing for Independence Day? Any “Freedom Runs” being held in your community?