Carbohydrates are villainized, as they potentially contribute to body fat increase when consumed excessively. This leads to the question: can I eat carbs before bed? And if yes, what kind and how much? In short, the answer of the scientific community is “it depends”. So, read on to know when to eat your carbs for maintaining a healthy body and good sleep.
Carbohydrates: What Are They?
You learned at school that carbs are “the body fuel”, our main source of energy. Indeed, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee report suggests (1) that carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65% of a daily calorie intake for an adult. This macronutrient comes in different forms, so we categorize carbs as simple and complex and divide them into three types: sugar, starch, and fiber.
- Simple carbs are sugar. It comes as fructose in fruits and vegetables, lactose — in milk and dairy, and sucrose — in table sugar (2). The latter is added by food manufacturers or when cooking. Starches in refined grains where the fiber is stripped away like white flour, pasta, and white rice are also quick for your body to digest and absorb.
- Complex carbs like starch and fiber are sugar molecules bonded in complex chains (2). They are in whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, peanuts), and vegetables. Complex carbs digest slower and contain more nutrients raising glucose levels for longer (10). That’s why they are more filling and provide a lengthier energy boost.
Complex Vs. Simple Carbs Before Bed
It’s better to eat complex carbs before bed. A 2019 Columbia University research shows that consuming diets high in refined carbs like processed grains, white rice, and added sugars links to insomnia (8). It all connects to a quick rise in blood sugar after simple carbohydrates. An insulin release follows and then a rapid drop of blood sugar with adrenaline and cortisol. The last two interfere with your sleep.
In general, Mayo Clinic Staff (2) recommends limiting added sugars and refined grains. Instead, they suggest eating more complex carbs and naturally occurring sugars in fruits. While you still can enjoy a doughnut or a carbonara during the day, slow digesting carbs before bed are surely better.
Carbs Vs. Protein Before Bed
You might also wonder what’s a safer choice for your presleep snack: carbs or protein. According to a Florida State University study, 30 grams of protein 30 minutes before bed is good for you (5). Their snack of choice was cottage cheese. They noticed a positive effect on metabolism and muscle quality. This is good news if you are working out and lifting!
But wait, how does it compare to carbs? British Journal of Nutrition published a Cambridge study that looks at protein and carbohydrate consumption in the hours before sleep for healthy physically active young men (6). With no significant difference between the two, both enhance next-morning metabolism, if compared to a non-energy-containing placebo. That’s why either proteins or carbs before bed can make your resting body burn calories faster the morning after.
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How Much Carbs Before Bed?
In the mentioned studies, researchers used portions with 30 to 38 grams of the macronutrient (protein or carbohydrate). So if you choose to eat whole foods rather than a carb supplement, strive for the same amount in the nutritional value of your snack. Amber W. Kinsey, PhD and Michael J. Ormsbee, PhD who studied nighttime eating back up small portions, too (9). Their research paper suggests that adverse health impacts of eating before sleep are there for small single-foods or mixed-meals. So if you choose a 150-calorie nutrient-dense meal or single-nutrient food, you may see good physiological changes for muscle protein synthesis and cardiometabolic health (9).
How To Burn Carbs Fast Before Bed?
Now, what if you had a high-carb dinner?
- If your bedtime and dinnertime are a few hours apart, there’s nothing to worry about. In fact, a 6-month clinical trial showed that a weight-loss diet with the majority of carb intake at dinner is more effective than when they are spread out throughout the day (4). That means that “dinner carbs = excessive body fat” is a myth.
- It might be good, if your workout time is in the evening, too. Mayo Clinic reminds us that carbs are essential for athletic performance (7). For a light daily workout you need 3 to 5 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight that day, and for an hour-long (or more) session — 6 to 10 grams (7). Just do the math and enjoy your pasta or rice!
The Bottom Line
When to eat carbs is only up to you! Carbohydrates are not your enemy. Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and whole grains keep you full and energized on a lower calorie count, so you can maintain a healthy weight (2). A few tips from us:
- Favor complex carbs and don’t eat as much added sugar and refined carbs.
- The more you exercise, the more carbs you need.
- A high-carb dinner is ok. But if it’s just 30 minutes before bed, opt for a 150 calorie snack.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Carbohydrates (2014, academic.oup.com)
- Carbohydrates: How carbs fit into a healthy diet (2020, mayoclinic.org)
- Contribution of evening macronutrient intake to total caloric intake and body mass index (2013, sciencedirect.com)
- Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner (2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Late night snacker? Make it cottage cheese (2018, sciencedaily.com)
- Night-time consumption of protein or carbohydrate results in increased morning resting energy expenditure in active college-aged men (2013, cambridge.org)
- Nutrition rules that will fuel your workout (2021, mayoclinic.org)
- Refined carbs may trigger insomnia, finds study (2019, sciencedaily.com)
- The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives (2015, mdpi.com)
- What to Know About Carbs (n.d., webmd.com)