A new study looking at the connection between food choices and sleep has found that people not getting enough rest were much more likely to reach for junk food than healthier fare.

Using brain-imaging technology, researchers compared the response of participants who had at least 9 hours sleep to those with less than 4 hours sleep. The two participant groups were shown images of foods like pizza, pepperoni, oatmeal, fruits, and vegetables. The brain scans showed that participants lacking sleep responded to the images of junk food more than well-rested participants.

This study echoes other research in this area that has found people who don’t get a solid 8 hours of sleep a night are more prone to snacking, cravings, feelings of hunger, and a tendency toward sugary, salty, or fatty foods. Other studies on sleep and weight suggest a lack of sleep may lead to a release of hormones that make weight gain easier.

So what does this mean for you? It’s simple make losing weight easier on yourself by putting quality sleep high on your list. I’d even go so far as to say it’s just as important as getting regular exercise and eating right.

Here are some things you can do to improve your sleep quality:

  • Set a consistent schedule for going to bed and getting up and stick to it even on weekends
  • If you have trouble getting to sleep, establish a bedtime routine that includes relaxing activities such as a bath, reading, or sipping chamomile tea.
  • Make sure your bedroom is a restful, serene space. Eliminate televisions, computers, and other electronic gadgets.
  • If your mattress isn’t comfortable, consider purchasing a new one. If you can’t do that at the moment, see if memory foam or other bed topper can help.
  • If noise is a problem, try running a fan or a white noise machine in your bedroom to help mask background noise.
  • If you do shift work and sleep during the day, get black-out drapes so your bedroom is completely dark.
  • Avoid eating or drinking anything, especially anything containing caffeine, several hours before bedtime.
  • If you snore loudly or have other signs of sleep apnea, have your doctor do a sleep study.

In short, make sleep a priority as a way to make losing weight easier on yourself. After all, why struggle with added cravings and hunger if you don’t need to?