You've probably heard that eating carbs before bed is a no-no. But is noshing on a chocolate chip cookie at 1 p.m. really all that different from visiting the cookie jar at 10 p.m.?
With the rising popularity of meal plans like intermittent fasting, there's great debate about the best time of day to eat just about anything — carbs included.
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So is your p.m. carb habit a recipe for weight gain or a helpful strategy for winding down? Here's the scoop on the pros and cons of eating carbs before bed.
Carbohydrate Digestion 101
First, let's review what carbohydrates are and how they function in the body. Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains all contain carbohydrates. The natural sugar in dairy, lactose, is also a carb and so are the starches and sweeteners that make up foods like bread, cookies, pasta, candy and soda.
The body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, a simple sugar. When glucose gets absorbed from the GI tract, it's released into the bloodstream and insulin helps shuttle it into cells where it can act as fuel. When there's too much glucose, cells store the sugar either as glycogen (in muscles or the liver) or as fat instead of burning it for energy, per Michigan Medicine.
Some people think that the more carbs we eat, the more energy we store and, potentially, the more weight we gain. Because the body requires less energy overnight, it seems fitting that the sugars we eat from late-night carbs are more likely to be stored than burned.
But there's more than just the clock to consider.
"If you overeat at any time of day, you will likely gain weight."
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
Different types of carbs affect the body in different ways.
"Fast carbs include sugary foods such as soda, candy and white bread, which are fiberless," says Marissa Meshulam, RD, New York-based registered dietitian and founder of the private practice MPM Nutrition. "This means they get digested quickly and leave us hungry soon thereafter." They can also cause a serious blood sugar spike.
"Slow carbs like beans, quinoa and sweet potatoes are filled with fiber and provide us with a steady source of energy slowly, meaning we are full for longer and skip the energy highs and lows," Meshulam explains.
Understanding these differences becomes important when choosing a late-night snack. (More on that soon.)
Does Carb Timing Matter?
There's no question that the amount and types of carbohydrates we eat have an impact on our health. The best time of day to eat them is less clear cut.
"Individuals tolerate carbohydrates differently," says Marisa Silver, RD, a New York-based registered dietitian at the private practice Culina Health. "Some thrive on having more early in the day, some do best by splitting them up into small portions throughout the day and others do well with carbs only at night."
It's also possible that the optimal time of day to eat carbohydrates may depend on your end goal.
People experienced more weight loss when they ate a high-carb breakfast and a low-carb dinner compared to a low-carb breakfast and a high-carb dinner, per a January 2017 review in the journal Circulation. People who front-loaded their carb intake earlier in the day were also observed to have better cardiometabolic outcomes (think: lower levels of triglycerides and higher levels of good HDL cholesterol) compared to people who ate more carbs at night.
That's just one study though. "While your metabolism does slow down later at night and during sleep, more research is needed to determine whether late-night eating actually impacts weight control," Silver tells us.
Of course, if you're someone who enjoys dessert every night, cutting carbs after 5 p.m. is likely to result in weight loss. By removing the sweet stuff from your diet, you're slashing calories — no matter what time of day it is.
Overdoing it on refined carbs at any time of day can compromise sleep. A higher intake of added sugars, in general, was associated with poorer sleep quality in women, per a February 2020 cohort study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
A sugar bomb before bed can also disrupt sleep by causing digestive issues, Silver says. But you don't have to ban all carbohydrates come nightfall for better sleep. In fact, eating healthy complex carbs at bedtime may actually be helpful for logging shuteye.
"Carbohydrates help increase serotonin production, which is a precursor to our sleepy hormone melatonin, and can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol," Meshulam explains. "This can help us relax and get in a restful mindset."
Eating carbs before bed can also help us feel satiated so we aren't tossing and turning due to hunger. "If you are having trouble sleeping, try a small snack with some complex carbohydrates and pair it with a protein or fat to help stabilize blood sugar levels," Silver suggests. "A slice of whole-wheat toast with a smear of peanut butter is a good choice."
For some groups, like endurance athletes, the timing of carbohydrate consumption is of critical importance. Ever heard of carb-loading the night before a marathon? There's a reason people do it.
Exercise depletes the muscles of glycogen, the stored form of glucose that initially fuels high-intensity physical activity, per the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Without an adequate amount of carbohydrates eaten at regular intervals, glycogen stores can get depleted and athletic performance can suffer.
Basically, "athletes may need more carbohydrates before, during and after a workout to perform at optimal levels, replenish energy stores and avoid early fatigue," Silver says. So if you're doing an intense evening workout, bedtime carbs may be necessary to appropriately refuel the body.
Just remember: "The timing and amount of carbohydrates depend on the athlete, his or her activity level and body composition," Silver says. Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition can help you determine the ideal amount and timing of carbohydrate intake for optimal athletic performance.
What Are the Best Carbs to Eat at Night?
We hate to say it, but polishing off a full pint of ice cream right before turning in for the night isn't advised. Doing so may trigger digestive issues like reflux or heartburn, which is more likely to occur after eating high-fat foods and can be exacerbated by lying down, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Instead, go for a good balance of complex carbs in combination with some lean protein or healthy fat. "Fat and protein, as well as fiber in the slow carbs, mediate our blood sugar response to carbohydrates, providing us with steady energy through the night," Meshulam says.
Here are some dietitian-approved snacks to eat before bed:
- One serving high-fiber crackers with one ounce of cheese
- One cup plain yogurt with ½ cup of fresh fruit and a sprinkle of granola
- One cup popcorn with two tablespoons of almonds. "The nuts will help your blood sugar and contain a good amount of magnesium and melatonin, which helps with sleep," Meshulam explains.
- One slice whole-wheat toast with one tablespoon peanut butter and ½ banana
- ½ cup frozen cherries with one teaspoon cacao nibs and one tablespoon nut butter. "The cherries provide a melatonin boost, while the nuts and cacao serve up some magnesium," Meshulam says.
- One slice whole-wheat toast with two ounces of turkey
So, Is Eating Carbs Before Bed Really That Bad?
Not bad. After all, the 250 calories in your brownie at 1 p.m. don't magically become 500 calories if you eat the brownie at 10 p.m. What matters more is the amount you are eating in general.
"If you overeat at any time of day, you will likely gain weight," Meshulam says.
When it comes to late-night eats, the main issue is that they tend to be heavier and portion sizes larger. "Lots of people fall into the habit of strictly eating 'clean' all day," Meshulam notes. "Then they are starving at night so they tend to binge on snack-y, carb-rich foods."
The key is to eat regularly throughout the day and include high-quality carbs at mealtimes so that sugar cravings don't come on strong at 8 p.m. "A good rule of thumb is that starchier carbohydrates like potatoes, beans or rice should make up about one-quarter of our plates at meals, or about the size of one fist," Meshulam says.
Then, try to close down the kitchen around two hours before you hit the sack. If you're still feeling hungry after dinner, opt for a balanced snack that provides calm-bringing complex carbs sans the sugar spike.
- Journal of the American Heart Association: “Measures of Poor Sleep Quality Are Associated With Higher Energy Intake and Poor Diet Quality in a Diverse Sample of Women From the Go Red for Women Strategically Focused Research Network”
- Circulation: “Meal Timing and Frequency: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing”
- Michigan Medicine: “Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats and Blood Sugar”
- The Cleveland Clinic: “Heartburn”