QUESTION: “I'm 35 and weigh slightly over 180 pounds. My question is about meals and timing. During the day, I have lean protein. But after a long day at work and exercise, I usually end up eating too many carbs late at night. It makes me feel tired. How badly is this harming my health progress?”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your question. Thank you for being a long-time listener and I’m so glad you enjoy the podcast but most of all, find it helpful.
First, I must mention that your dedication to your health is very inspiring. The fact that you have been so consistent with not only your exercise, but reaching your nutrient targets as well, is amazing. This is not easy.
I’m thrilled that you have been making such consistent gains in, what seems to be, your muscle mass.
Are Carbs Late at Night Causing Damage?
Now, if you were to twist my arm (which, based on your workout routine you could probably do quite easily) and ask me point blank whether consuming highly processed carbs late at night is causing damage, I would say probably not.
So, there you go… show’s over!
Ok, you twisted my arm… I’ll explain.
You mentioned that, even when you consume these highly processed, carbohydrate-rich foods late in the evening, you seem to still be meeting your nutrient targets. This is one reason why I’m not super-concerned about it.
Now, if you happened to ask me whether consuming these foods is potentially holding you back from maximizing your potential, well, that’s another story. In that case, I would confidently say… maybe.
Why The Answer Isn’t So Straight-Forward
Here’s the deal: everyone’s body metabolizes nutrients a little bit differently.
For example, those who may not be as consistent with their physical activity are more likely to process and store the foods they eat as fat. Someone that is consistently active is more likely to shuttle the nutrients they consume as stored sugar (also known as glycogen) or use those nutrients to help rebuild muscle instead of storing it as fat.
Not only that, but someone that is consistently active is more likely to burn fat as fuel all the time – when they’re working out, watching the entire 4-hour Synder Cut of Justice League in one sitting, or even while sleeping. But this only explains part of what’s going o
I haven’t yet mentioned the importance of the other meals and snacks that take place during the day. Oh, and sleep patterns seem to play a role in all of this, too.
The American Heart Association recently published a statement on meal timing. They didn’t address consuming highly processed, carbohydrate-rich foods, specifically but their main takeaways are still worth mentioning. They said that, when you look at what’s been published in the past, it seems like late-night eating can increase a person’s risk for developing obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes and even cardiovascular disease.
But they said that this is misleading. Well-designed studies are being conducted and aren’t finding that late-night eating is necessarily a problem. It really depends on the person and their lifestyle.
For example, many of us would define 11:30 pm as being “late night.” But what if you didn’t wake up until noon? Well, if you didn’t wake up until noon, now 11:30 pm is dinner time! This is where our sleep patterns can play a role.
Going to meal quality and meal timing… if our meals throughout the day are well-planned and balanced, then consuming food late at night may not be an issue. If we skip breakfast and lunch and have one meal before bed, well, that may pose some health problems… not necessarily because of meal timing but because that meal will likely not be well-balanced and because one meal will probably not provide all the nutrients the body needs for the day.
Late-Night Eating to Maximize Our Potential?
Now, I mentioned something about eating to maximize your potential. I know it can be difficult to give up some of those carb-rich foods, especially at the end of the day.
These foods release dopamine in the brain, making us feel more calm and relaxed. They seem to help us destress. So, I get it.
But some early studies are finding that drinking a high protein beverage that contains about 150 calories before bed may be helpful for rebuilding muscle and increasing resting metabolic rate in those that participate in regular physical activity.
So, if you’re able to swap some of those carbohydrate-rich foods for maybe a glass of milk before bed instead, it may help maximize muscle growth and increase your metabolism the next morning.