Why Eating Carbs Before Bed Is Controversial
Myths and fallacies plague the world of fitness and nutrition with one of the most common ones being that if you eat carbs before bedtime, you're going to gain fat.
The apparent “logic” behind this myth is that carbohydrates provide the body with energy, and since you’re not expending a ton of energy while you sleep, the body will have no choice but to store them as fat.
To make matters worse, when you eat carbohydrates, insulin is released, which puts the body into nutrient storing mode and down-regulates fat burning. So, not only are you preventing your body from burning fat while you sleep, but you’re also going to be storing a lot more fat since you just ate a bunch of food and decided to go to sleep, rather than exercise and burn it off.
But, when you take a step back and start to analyze things, you'll see that the whole "don't eat carbs after X P.M." theory doesn't pass the test.
For starters, it's important to realize that when you sleep, your body isn't completely inactive. The body is pretty active from a metabolic standpoint during sleep, and some research indicates that nighttime basal metabolic rate is roughly the same as during the day. <1,2>
When we sleep, a whole cascade of muscle repair, growth, and glycogen repletion processes are going on, and guess what powers those processes?
Energy (in the form of ATP) that your body creates from the food you eat.
Beyond that, let's say for instance, that you have to pull a double at work and that the only time you have to eat is late in the evening.
Will all of the calories from that meal immediately be stored as fat, even if you aren’t exceeding your calorie limits for the day?
Some nutrition "experts" will say, yes - and they would be 100% wrong.
For starters, human physiology isn’t that sensitive. Eating one meal late at night doesn’t automatically turn you into what you would look like if you stood in front of the mirror in a fat suit. It takes years of overeating daily to gain considerable amounts of body fat.
Second, weight gain and weight loss is a matter of calories in vs. calories out.
If you consume all of your calories in the evening right before bed, yet you do not exceed your calorie requirements (TDEE), you will not gain weight.
To say that another way, it doesn't matter if you evenly space all of your meals throughout the day or eat them all within a few hours (a la intermittent fasting). When it comes to weight loss and weight gain, the thing that matters is your total daily energy balance.
So long as you’re not consuming more calories than you burn in a day, you will not gain weight, regardless if you eat one time per day or six times per day.
Now, if we’re trying to optimize muscle gain, you will want to evenly space your protein feedings throughout the day to maximize your anabolic potential, but that’s a story for a different day.
Therefore, if you enjoy eating carbohydrates before bed, and find that it helps you sleep better, do see with the relief of knowing that they will not automatically be stored as fat.
Reasons Not to Eat Before Bed
While eating before bed doesn’t inherently make you gain body fat, there are a couple of situations when it would be better advised to avoid eating carbs before bed.
Even though eating before bed doesn't inherently lead to fat gain, several studies have found a correlation (association) between pre-bed eating and weight gain. <3,4>
The reason for this is that more often than not, the pre-bed snack culminates in extra calories, i.e., calories above and beyond their maintenance calories.
And, as we've said a few times in this article when you consume a higher number of calories than you burn in a day, you will gain weight.
Something else also worth mentioning is that generally speaking when people eat late at night, they're often doing so sitting in front of the TV, which leads to mindless munching. This mindless munching has been known to lead to overeating, and, as a result, weight gain.
But, if you don’t have this problem of completely blowing your diet and mindlessly snacking in front of the tv, there’s nothing to worry about with eating late at night.
It’s Bad If You Have Reflux
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backs up into the throat. One of the hallmark symptoms of acid reflux (a.k.a. GERD) is heartburn.
As much as 48% of the Western population is affected by GERD.
If you’re someone who frequently experiences heartburn after eating, then you may want to avoid eating right before bed.
The reason for this is that eating right before you lie down increases the likelihood of acid splashing up into your esophagus due to your stomach being full.
Therefore, if you are prone to bouts of reflux, you will probably want to stop eating a few hours before going to bed so that you can enjoy a deep, restorative, and peaceful night's rest.
Now, that we've hopefully eased your worries about eating carbs before bedtime, let's take a look at a few of the benefits to be had from consuming carbohydrates-rich foods before sleep.
Four Reasons to Consider Eating Carbs Before Bed
Sleep is essential to health, wellness, longevity, and performing optimally, both mentally and physically.
Despite the importance of sleep, many individuals struggle to either fall asleep or stay asleep every night. This is particularly alarming as several studies have found a link between sleep deprivation and overeating as well as weight gain. <7,8>
Fortunately, consuming a carbohydrate-rich snack before bed may help.
The reason for this is that eating carbohydrates increases the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that affects mood and helps modulate sleep. <5>
It also serves as the precursor to melatonin -- the hormone that governs our sleep/wake cycle. <6>
Now, here’s where carbohydrates come in.
Around 90% of serotonin is made in the gut.
For the gut to synthesize serotonin, it relies on an essential amino acid called tryptophan (yes the same one found in turkey that gets the blame for those post-thanksgiving naps).
For tryptophan to reach the brain (and produce serotonin), it requires a steady supply of carbohydrates.
Additionally, if you’re also someone who frequently wakes up in the middle of the night feeling hungry, then eating before bed might help you sleep more soundly <9,10> as the pre-bed snack will help keep the hangry monster from appearing.
This may come as a shock, but eating before bed may help you lose weight.
As we just mentioned, a small pre-bed snack can help keep you feel, thereby helping prevent the chances that you wake up in the middle of the night feeling starved and then raiding the fridge. <11>
One study found that having a light snack before bed (a bowl of cereal and milk) helped people consume around 397 fewer calories per day. <12> At the end of the 4-week study, participants consuming the light after-dinner snack dropped almost 2 pounds!
Stabilize Morning Blood Sugar
Nocturnal hypoglycemia is a condition characterized by low blood sugar during the night, which can affect sleep quality. <13>
Eating carbs before bed provides your body with a steady supply of energy that helps maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout the night and into the morning. <14,15>
Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates our muscles tap into for energy during high-intensity exercise, including resistance-training, sprinting, and HIIT. <17>
The harder, longer, and more frequently we train, the higher demand we place on our glycogen reserves, and when glycogen levels become depleted, performance, recovery, and muscle fullness decline.
Carbohydrates provide the infusion of glucose our bodies need to replenish muscle glycogen. And, having a carbohydrate-rich snack before bed can help replenish muscle glycogen that was depleted during training.
This becomes all the more important if you train late at night one day and plan to train fasted upon waking the following day as the pre-bed carbs will help top off your glycogen stores for the morning workout.
What Types of Carbs Should You Eat?
There’s no “perfect” recipe for what every individual should eat before bed. It largely depends on your personal preferences as well as how hungry you are and how many calories you have available to eat.
That being said, there are a couple of "ground rules," you may want to follow when creating your bedtime snack.
Limit Refined Sugars
Refined sugars (i.e., cakes, cookies, candy, and most processed goods) can do a number on your blood sugar levels when consumed in excess and the absence of other foods. Beyond that, they can quite frequently lead us to feel hungrier than we were before eating them.
This is usually because foods that are high in refined sugars are low in protein and fiber -- both of which help increase feelings of fullness and slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Eating carbohydrates late at night won’t inherently make you fat, but loading up on a bunch of refined sugars and simple carbs can lead you to overeat, and thereby gain weight.
Focus on “Good” Carbohydrates
When crafting your carb-tastic pre-bed snack, it's generally a good idea to opt for whole food sources of carbohydrates like fruits or whole grains (i.e., oatmeal).
Whole food carbohydrates often come with a healthy dose of fiber that helps prolong the release of energy into the bloodstream, thereby sidestepping the issue of wild swings in blood sugar levels and ravenous hunger pangs.
To ramp up the power of your before-bed snack, you can also combine your carbohydrates with some protein. Not only does this increase the satiety of your snack, but it also supplies your muscles with the essential amino acids, it needs to support muscle repair and growth.
One of our favorite combinations is to mix one cup of yogurt with one scoop of protein powder and then mix in a serving of berries or a serving of whole-grain cereal.
This power bowl provides everything needed to help keep you full during the night and support recovery.
The Bottom Line on Eating Carbs Before Bed
Eating carbohydrates before bedtime is neither good nor bad.
It depends on your preferences and biases.
If you can eat carbohydrates before bed and not exceed your calorie limit for the day, then have at it. As a bonus, you might also sleep better due to the increased serotonin release.
However, if you're prone to overeating or making poor decisions with pre-bed snacks, then it's probably best to avoid eating carbs before bed.
- Schoffelen, P. F. M., & Westerterp, K. R. (2008). Intra-individual variability and adaptation of overnight- and sleeping metabolic rate. Physiology & Behavior, 94(2), 158–163. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.12.013
- Goldberg, G. R., Prentice, A. M., Davies, H. L., & Murgatroyd, P. R. (1988). Overnight and basal metabolic rates in men and women. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 42(2), 137–144.
- Baron KG, Reid KJ, Horn LV, Zee PC. Contribution of evening macronutrient intake to total caloric intake and body mass index. Appetite. 2013;60(1):246–251. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.026
- Spaeth AM, Dinges DF, Goel N. Effects of Experimental Sleep Restriction on Weight Gain, Caloric Intake, and Meal Timing in Healthy Adults. Sleep. 2013;36(7):981–990. Published 2013 Jul 1. doi:10.5665/sleep.2792
- Portas, C. M., Bjorvatn, B., & Ursin, R. (2000). Serotonin and the sleep/wake cycle: special emphasis on microdialysis studies. Progress in Neurobiology, 60(1), 13–35.
- Zhao, D., Yu, Y., Shen, Y., Liu, Q., Zhao, Z., Sharma, R., & Reiter, R. J. (2019). Melatonin Synthesis and Function: Evolutionary History in Animals and Plants . Frontiers in Endocrinology . Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fendo.2019.00249
- Broussard JL, Kilkus JM, Delebecque F, et al. Elevated ghrelin predicts food intake during experimental sleep restriction. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016;24(1):132–138. doi:10.1002/oby.21321
- Nedeltcheva AV, Kilkus JM, Imperial J, Kasza K, Schoeller DA, Penev PD. Sleep curtailment is accompanied by increased intake of calories from snacks. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(1):126–133. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.26574
- Schiavo-Cardozo, D., Lima, M. M. O., Pareja, J. C., & Geloneze, B. (2013). Appetite-regulating hormones from the upper gut: disrupted control of xenin and ghrelin in night workers. Clinical Endocrinology, 79(6), 807–811. https://doi.org/10.1111/cen.12114
- Tsujino, N., & Sakurai, T. (2012). <Circadian rhythm of leptin, orexin and ghrelin>. Nihon rinsho. Japanese journal of clinical medicine, 70(7), 1121–1125.
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- Desjardins, K., Brazeau, A.-S., Strychar, I., & Rabasa-Lhoret, R. (2014). Are bedtime nutritional strategies effective in preventing nocturnal hypoglycaemia in patients with type 1 diabetes? Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism, 16(7), 577–587. https://doi.org/10.1111/dom.12232
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