One of the most frequent questions we get asked is whether it is okay to eat carbohydrates at night. There’s a lot of anecdotal justifications for why we shouldn’t be doing so, and I’m sure you’ve heard from your parents or relatives that if you eat sugary snacks before bed, you’ll likely be adding to your waistline.
There is some truth to this saying, and it applies largely to the people that aren’t currently on a diet, let alone tracking their macronutrient or caloric intake. For the average overweight or obese person, cutting carbs at night may certainly be a first step increasing a caloric deficit that is needed to facilitate fat loss, and likely successful. But the big question is, is the timing of our carb intake causing us to gain weight?
Firstly, it’s important to know the role of carbs and how they are used in our bodies. Carbs are our main energy source and is broken down into glucose upon digestion which is either used for immediate energy or stored for later use as glycogen in the liver and muscle tissues (and although very rarely, sometimes it is stored as fat in adipose tissue).
When carbohydrates are ingested, the pancreas immediately releases insulin (the hormone which shuttles away the unused glucose into the cells of our body). The presence of insulin inhibits lipolysis, the breakdown of stored fat in adipose tissues into free fatty acids that can be used for energy, and it is here that people figure carbs need be reduced as we are preventing our bodies from being in fat-burning mode.
While insulin does inhibit lipolysis, it is definitely untrue carbs are the cause of our bodies gaining fat. Studies that equated protein and calories between two groups - high carb low fat, and high fat low carb, found no differences in the amount of body fat lost when net calories were in a deficit. This tells us it’s not the carbs that are making us fat, and in fact it’s clear that what’s most important for fat loss is that our total calorie intake is less than our total caloric expenditure.
So then where are we getting the idea that carbs at night are bad for us? Maybe it is the timing after all!
Not at all. In actuality, the timing of nutrients will be very much trivial during a diet. In some cases, timing of nutrients can place you closer to an ideal scenario in terms of building muscle or for providing energy, but if this compromises your adherence to the diet it won’t be worth considering. For instance, given carbs provide fast energy for our bodies, it can be beneficial to have a fast digesting carb source pre-workout to get a better workout. Some people enjoy their carbs midday regardless of a workout when they feel tired and need an uplift in energy, and that’s completely fine too! Timing of carbs should mainly be something to consider to improve your adherence, or if you are an elite level athlete looking to get the most out of your nutrition.
But surely eating sugary snacks at night are bad for you?
To be frank, sugary snacks are probably not great for you in general. Sure if it helps with adherence to your diet, including a small sugary snack might be helpful, however in most cases people tend to feel a sugar rush, then crash, and want more as a pick-me-up. This sort of behavioural issue can lead to a caloric surplus and knock you off a diet, and obviously that’s sub-optimal - but it has nothing to do with timing.
The truth is, nutrient timing, sugar, and in general, carbs are fine when it comes to dieting. Those elements alone will not cause you to gain fat. Carbs actually have a relaxing characteristic as it increases serotonin production as well as improving tryptophan availability to the brain, making it almost a good thing to have in the evening as it may aid with falling asleep. So for those of you that are worrying about the nitty-gritty and are cutting carbs at night, pay more attention to the big picture: exercise, eat in a caloric deficit, and have some patience. The results will come in time.