Carbs At Night Myths & Facts

Demystifying Carb Timing for Weight Loss & Muscle Gain

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 19, 2024

There is a lot of conflicting information about whether it’s okay to eat carbs at night. Some sources say it can cause weight gain and poor sleep, while others say it can actually help with weight loss and sleep quality.

In this article, I will address these common misconceptions and explain the best way to structure your evening meal, including when and what to eat.

Carbs At Night

Origins of the Carbs at Night Myth

This myth that late-night carbs are bad may have originated from the idea that excess carbs are stored as fat when the body isn’t active. However, this is an oversimplification of how the body’s energy needs and energy storage work.

The confusion surrounding this nutrition myth could also be linked to a misunderstanding about insulin, a hormone that can interfere with fat burning. In reality, food choices throughout the day influence insulin levels and body weight.

Another common belief is that eating carbs in the evening can disrupt sleep quality. While it is true that consuming large meals or sugary snacks right before bedtime can disturb sleep, it is not always the case. Certain high-carb meals can actually promote better sleep.

When Avoiding Carbs At Night Makes Sense

Avoiding carbs after a particular time of day is not necessary, but there are certain situations where it could be a good idea. For example, you might remove or reduce the amount of carbs you eat in evening meals if:

  • You’ve exceeded your daily calorie intake target
  • You have issues with insulin resistance
  • You’re snacking out of boredom
  • The food is high in added sugars
  • The meal contains a lot of calories
carbs at night myth

Debunking the Carbs at Night Myth

In this section, I’ll explain why low-carb diets are not the key to greater weight loss and explore how carbohydrate intake at the end of the day really affects sleep.

Understanding Carbs & Weight Loss

Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient and a vital part of a healthy diet. When you consume carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose, which enters your bloodstream and triggers insulin release.

Low-glycemic or complex carbs, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, have a slower effect on blood glucose levels and insulin secretion. On the other hand, high-glycemic or simple carbs, such as white bread, sugary drinks, and desserts, cause rapid blood sugar spikes.

Consuming high-glycemic carbs in excess can lead to weight gain and other health issues. However, the exact timing of carbohydrate consumption does not necessarily impact average insulin levels or fat storage. Instead, your overall energy balance ultimately determines weight loss.

A systematic review of studies published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no significant differences in weight loss between low-carb and high-carb diets1. Therefore, a successful weight loss diet depends more on calorie intake than macronutrient composition.

As a nutrition coach, I can confirm this is true and I have had clients lose weight regardless of carb intake as long as they were in proper energy balance.

The Role of Carbs in Sleep Efficiency

Sleep has a significant effect on body composition and overall health. Whether you want to lose fat, build muscle mass, or improve athletic performance, you must not underestimate its importance.

Recent studies have shown that consuming carbohydrates before bed can increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, particularly rapid eye movement (REM) sleep2.

While consuming carbohydrates before bed can promote REM sleep, the timing must be considered. Consuming a large meal high in carbohydrates within one hour of bedtime can increase your heart rate and decrease deep sleep.

Instead, aim to consume a small meal containing carbohydrates one to four hours before bedtime. This can help increase serotonin levels and promote REM sleep without causing discomfort or disrupting sleep.

With my Oura ring, I have seen measurable effects on my heart rate and sleep stages based on the size, composition, and timing of nighttime meals. I highly recommend using a sleep tracker to see how your body reacts to different meal schedules.

When to Eat Carbs for Weight Loss

Reducing your carb intake for part of the day can help limit insulin spikes and promote fat-burning. Eating carbohydrates less frequently increases insulin sensitivity, and it allows your body to become more efficient at processing carbohydrates.

Exercise also increases insulin sensitivity, so the best time to eat carbs is after your workout. Taking advantage of the post-workout anabolic window can help you build lean muscle, which increases your metabolic rate and helps you burn more fat.

The frequency and timing of carb-rich meals will vary depending on your fitness goals. The graph below illustrates how carb timing impacts your metabolic state for muscle gain or fat loss.

Carbs At Night By Fitness Goal

Benefits of Eating Carbs at Night

Contrary to popular belief, eating carbs at night can actually be beneficial. This is especially true if you work out in the afternoon or evening.

  • Replenish Energy: Eating carbs at night can help replenish glycogen stores, which are depleted during exercise and normal daily activities. Refueling in the evening can help you feel more energized in the morning.
  • Increase Muscle Growth: Eating carbohydrates has anabolic effects that counteract catabolic hormones like cortisol, which increase during strenuous workouts. These effects include increasing muscle protein synthesis, essential for maintaining and building muscle.
  • Enhance Recovery: Eating carbohydrates after exercise helps deliver minerals and amino acids to your muscles, which can support muscle recovery and help you train harder the next day.
  • Improve Sleep Quality: Eating carbohydrates at night can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. They can also help with memory consolidation during the first half of sleep.
  • Balance Hormones: Getting better sleep by eating carbs at night can also help balance hormones like leptin and ghrelin, which regulate appetite and body weight.
Carbs At Night Ghrelin Leptin

The Bigger Picture of Carbs and Fat Loss

Many people focus on specific macronutrients, such as carbs, when it comes to weight loss. However, it’s essential to understand that the bigger picture of weight loss is energy balance and total calorie intake.

  • Energy Balance: To lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit, which means consuming fewer calories than you burn. You can achieve this by reducing your overall calorie intake, increasing your physical activity levels, or combining both.
  • Protein Intake: Consuming enough protein to maintain or build muscle mass is a critical part of a sustainable weight loss plan.
  • Nutrient Timing: While nutrient timing can play a role in weight management, it’s not the most important factor. Consuming carbohydrates at night won’t necessarily make you gain weight. However, consuming a large amount of calories, regardless of the macronutrient breakdown, can lead to weight gain.
  • Added Sugars: Nighttime snacking can be a problem if you tend to reach for high-calorie, high-sugar snacks. Consuming a lot of added sugars can lead to weight gain, insomnia, and other health issues. It’s important to be mindful of your nighttime snacking habits and choose healthier options.
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Carbs At Night FAQ

In this section, I’ll answer the most common carb consumption questions.

How does the body process carbohydrates during sleep?

While we sleep, our body’s metabolism slows, and the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream to maintain blood sugar levels. Consuming carbohydrates at night provides glucose to the body for energy, preventing muscle tissue breakdown.

However, it is essential to note that overeating, in general, will cause the excess energy to be stored as fat.

Does eating carbs at night really matter?

Eating carbs at night will not make or break your fitness results. The more significant concerns are the total calories consumed and eating enough lean protein to maintain muscle. That said, carb timing can help you optimize your results once you’ve dialed in the big factors.

Can it be healthy to eat carbs at night?

Yes, it can be healthy to eat carbohydrates at night to promote restful sleep and recovery from workouts. Remember to choose the right types of carbs and don’t overdo it. 

What are good sources of carbs to eat at night?

Complex carbs like sweet potatoes, brown rice, and quinoa are great options. Other good sources include whole-grain bread, oatmeal, and fruits like berries and bananas.

However, it’s important to avoid processed carbs like sugary snacks and white bread, as they can spike blood sugar levels and interfere with deep sleep.

Is it better to eat carbs at night or in the morning?

It depends on your goals and schedule. Frontloading your carbs may be more beneficial if you’re more active in the morning. But if you exercise after school or work, carb backloading improves performance and recovery.

On the other hand, consuming carbs in the morning, midday, and evening is fine if you’re very active and trying to maximize muscle or strength gains. However, you shouldn’t overdo it with carbs if you are overweight or worried about eating too many calories

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