Whether your goal is weight loss, muscle building or getting a better night's sleep, you may wonder about the ideal timing and composition of your meals and snacks. Complex carbohydrates such as starches and fibrous vegetables generally take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates such as sweets and fruits, although there are exceptions. Deciding whether to eat complex carbs before bed is primarily a matter of preference, but it helps to know how your choices can affect your weight goals and health.
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Carbohydrates consisting of three or more sugar molecules qualify as complex carbohydrates. Grains, cereals, starchy vegetables and fibrous vegetables, for example, are complex carbs. However, not all complex carbs are considered healthy choices. Refined grains, for example, are stripped of fiber during the milling process. Additionally, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn and green peas each affect your blood sugar levels at different rates and to different degrees. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the starch in fried potatoes converts to blood sugar almost as quickly as pure glucose.
Although certain complex carbs such as broccoli, oatmeal and lentils certainly make healthier choices any time of day than sugary sodas, desserts and refined grains, eating any type of carbohydrate before bed is not necessarily a recipe for weight gain. You may have heard that foods you eat right before bed turn to fat. Although it's true that calories not needed to meet immediate energy demands are stored as glycogen or fat, this is a basic metabolic process that takes place after meals or snacks, regardless of the time of day. Ultimately, the total number of calories you consume -- and not the calorie source or the timing -- determines how much weight you lose or gain.
If you have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep at night, the National Sleep Foundation says that eating your last meal or snack at least two to three hours before bedtime may help. Rather than go to bed hungry, however, the Mayo Clinic recommends snacks, such as oatmeal or yogurt with granola, that include a complex carbohydrate. Foods that combine complex carbohydrates and protein, such as peanut butter on wheat bread or cereal with skim milk, may even help you sleep. Carbohydrates help deliver the amino acid tryptophan, which has a soporific effect, to your brain, explains the National Sleep Foundation.
If you follow a rigorous exercise regimen, and particularly if you work out in the evening, you may need to replenish carbohydrate stores prior to bedtime. Consuming complex carbs can help you restock glycogen stores, inhibit the breakdown of muscle and assist in muscle recovery. As to weight concerns, your body is constantly using energy from recently consumed food, storing excess calories as fat and releasing energy from glycogen and fat stores to meet demand. Weight gain or weight loss takes place over days and weeks rather than hours. Consult with your doctor about your food choices and meal timing if you have a diet-related illness such as diabetes.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Carbohydrates; February 2011
- MedlinePlus; Carbohydrates; June 2011
- American Heart Association; Triglycerides; May 2010
- Weight-Control Information Network; Weight-Loss and Nutrition Myths; March 2009
- National Sleep Foundation: Healthy Sleep Tips
- National Sleep Foundation; Food and Sleep; December 2009
- Bodybuilding.com: The Truth About Carbohydrates