The Women Sleeping Their Lives Away to Lose Weight
The "Sleeping Beauty Diet" involves the use of sleep to avoid hunger, with some advocates going as far as sedating themselves. It’s been around for decades, but the fad is still going strong on pro-anorexia blogs.
Illustration by Ben Thomson
If you're not awake, you're not eating cake. So goes the Sleeping Beauty diet, an extreme dieting practice that pairs sedation with starvation.
The premise is simple: The more you sleep, the less you eat. The diet recommends sleeping for unnaturally long stretches at a time, sometimes with the aid of sedatives, as a way to avoid the temptation of food. Despite the fact there is no science or evidence to prove this works in the long or short term, the diet has been around for decades, and is said to have been used by Elvis Presley. The King, it's claimed, used the diet in the 70s when he needed to fit his signature jumpsuits.
The diet was first referenced in 1966, in Jacqueline Susann's best-selling novel, Valley of the Dolls. Susann's protagonists, actresses and young ingenue's living in Hollywood, would sedate themselves or check into Swiss "sleep clinics" to shed the kilos in their sleep.
In its less extreme forms, the diet merely advocates for a better night's rest each night plus a healthy-eating and exercise plan. The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan by Dr Michael Breus advises four hours of exercise before bed, with no caffeine or alcohol a full seven hours before lights out.
At its worst, the Sleeping Beauty diet involves up to 20 hours of sleep every day through the use of sedatives and sleeping pills—drugs that can become highly addictive, and which have a high potential for overdose.
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Dr. Tracey Wade, a professor at the Flinders University School of Psychology, says addiction is just one of the harmful potential consequences of the Sleeping Beauty diet. "If people have to rely on medications to produce sleep—particularly [meds] like benzodiazepines, which are addictive—it's putting the person at risk of addiction," she says. "It's not only getting the body to sleep more than it needs to; they'll also have to use higher and higher dosage levels to get the desired effect."
I just take some really strong pain killers they usually dope me out and I'll nap for hours.
Wade says another harmful consequence is that sleeping for 20 hours each day comes at the cost of actually living your life. "This is really taking it to the nth degree; they literally can't participate because they're sleeping. They'd have increased social isolation, and in turn there's an impact on their mood, which can cause depression.
"We know that depression also triggers disordered eating," Wade continues. "It sounds like it would actually just push people more firmly into the vicious cycle that the eating disorder creates."
Women on pro-anorexia blogs and forums are turning to the practice in their own ways. One post from a user with the screen name prettythin describes the diet as "perfect for the end of the school semester," and outlines a low-calorie, fasting regime for 14 days—on top of 10-plus hours of extra sleep.
Others are already using sedatives. "I just take some really strong pain killers they usually dope me out and I'll nap for hours. They kind [of] mess with your stomach and curb your hunger a bit so I do it all the time." "I love sleeping to avoid food. It's pretty easy for me because I'm tired ninety-nine percent of the time." "I just go ahead and fall asleep to avoid any possible binges and eating."
It doesn't talk about how you'll manage the waking hours, where you'll be very hungry and very disorientated.
It's the seemingly effortless nature of the diet that makes it appealing to young women, Wade tells Broadly. "On the surface it sounds easy. I guess for people who are already depressed and already in the vicious cycle of an eating disorder, the idea of opting out of life and staying in bed might be attractive.
"But it doesn't talk about how you'll manage the waking hours, where you'll be very hungry and very disorientated with increasing levels of depression and nutritional deprivation."
It also doesn't talk about how you'll actually lose weight. There's no evidence to suggest the Sleeping Beauty diet works, and Wade says results are highly unlikely. "It's just like a low calorie diet, which slows down the metabolism anyway. The body will demand more food and it's very likely that binge eating, in the waking hours, will result."