Why You Need Carbohydrates at Night
For years now, you have probably heard that you should eat bigger meals earlier in the day. The reasoning behind this seems pretty intuitive – by taking in the majority of your calories in the morning or early afternoon, you’ll have more hours available to burn them off.
We have always been told that we need a well balanced breakfast to "break" the "fast" of a long sleep. There are studies that support the success of this thought process, even studies that show that eating breakfast means you will be less likely to overindulge before bedtime. This rationale is why so many popular nutrition programs advocate front-loading your food and limiting calorie intake, especially carbohydrates, after dark.
You may have followed this approach for years as well. But, we might be missing a major component of caveman human behavior and inherent biochemistry that may suggest that it actually makes more sense to consume a good amount of calories in the evening - including carbohydrates.
The Natural Inclination of Man
Humans, by their very caveman nature, were hunter/gatherers. Ancient man spent days, walking, tracking, hunting for food and shelter. Evenings were spent relaxing and feasting on the days spoils. Why do we go against the evolution of man when it comes to these predestined eating habits? Does it make more sense to work and train during the day, and refuel and recover at night? Being more active during the day and eating quality meals at night with higher amounts of carbohydrates may be an excellent way to prepare for the next day's "battles".
The first concern is that eating large meals in the evening increases the bodies propensity to store fat. This is not necessarily so. A study from the Journal of Nutrition (2012) that compared a feast-style dinner pattern with a more conventional dietary approach in already active individuatls found that the group which ate most of its carbohydrates with dinner, experienced greater weight loss and smaller bellies and body fat than the group that ate more conventionally.The reason is based on hormone concentrations and eating cycles during fasted and non fasted environments. If you're active and exercising this could be an excellent way to shift your "modern" day metabolism. This eating style is the way our caveman predecessors ate and prepared for the next day.
Here are the Facts
The fact of the matter is that there are individuals that do not exercise, and do not live healthy lifestyles. They already follow this diet to some degree and are gaining weight. Their busy stress induced lifestyle is dictating they skip breakfast, skip lunch, eat a huge dinner and go to bed. This lifestyle is not the prototypical lifestyle of "man". Man was created to explore, think, and most importantly, walk. We know in order to be healthy , we have to eat at least 4 small meals during the day to maintain energy and focus, and minimize stress and inflammation. Similarly, we know exercise increases the chances of greater mortality and better quality of life.
If you consider yourself active and train with any intensity while eating at least 4-5 meals/snacks throughout the day, take a look at what you typically have for dinner. Dinner still ends up being your largest meal. If you train in the afternoon, or even after dinner, it becomes crucial to eat a larger amount of calories in the evening. So, some might say that your day meals should be good sources of protein, nuts, and vegetables, while your night meals (after your workout) should contain those same foods with rice or potato. This will enhance recovery, stimulate more muscle development, and burn more fat..
The main reason why this is true is because of your hormonal concentrations. Without getting too scientific, when you train in the afternoon/evening after eating good sources of protein with vegetables all day, you are actually depleting a nutrient called glycogen (fancy name for stored sugar). Depleting this nutrient during the day and into your workout using high intensity training techniques, you absolutely must replenish this energy source after you train - with great sources of carbohydrates of course. Doing so sets off a barrage of muscle building, and fat burning hormones that keep you building and burning through the evening..
The Mind Body Connection of Man
We know there is a connection between food and the brain. Food ( or lack thereof) sends signals to the brain to tell us to eat or to stop eating. Similarly, the mind and the body are in rhythm with a cycle - called a circadian cycle. This cycle can change, based on your lifestyle. For example, on a typical day, you get up, you go to work and go about your day. During this time, you're not even thinking about food let alone listening to your body if it's hungry. You leave work for the day, and you get home and all of a sudden, you're starving. What happened? You're energy demands didn't change, yet your brain shifted. Your brain subconsciously knows that you got in your car, drove home, and is ready to eat because you effectively changed you circadian cycle to this behavior. This psychological process then becomes a chemical and physical process. You're body's stress induced fat storing hormones are in high gear and everything you consume will inevitably be stored as it's shifted into starvation mode. You're not thinking rationally and are fully aware of the unhealthy decisions, yet you seemingly have no control over it.
We need to structure our diets in a way that satisfies this natural urge to feast without chronically overeating. The human brain works on a sacrifice/reward pattern. Most people can cut calories, eat light, and make better food choices during the day if they can reward themselves with a satiating meal at night. Studies show that the reverse is not true however. It's much harder to feed the body with carbohydrates all day and then sacrifice at night.
It typically takes about 10 days to change the cycle. Once you grow accustomed to eating lighter through the day, and eating a carbohydrate rich meal at night, it becomes much easier.. Adrenaline kicks in faster, your insulin response is more positive, you think clearly, and are less stressed. Also, when you get home, you have the energy to get in the gym, train hard, and then recover effectively with a larger meal that your body will treat as fuel instead of storing as fat.
Eat light all day, exercise hard, and eat a large meal afterwards. Maybe even two high carb meals. Go to bed two to three hours later. Carbohydrates induce serotonin secretion which triggers your sleep cycle. Have you ever wondered why athletes and intense fitness enthusiasts who cut their carbohydrate intake suffer from insomnia? It's because the brain is struggling to relax because it's in a "starved" state.
You have to choose a diet that fits your lifestyle. You cannot expect to completely change your lifestyle to fit your diet. That is to say that in order to be successful with any program some lifestyle changes must occur, but it's not as if you're going to skip days at work to get your workout on. The majority of people are part time fitness individuals that have full time jobs. You don't have the resources, time, or energy to dedicate entire days to your fitness, so find a program that works for you. From my experience I am much happier and more motivated to stay on my program when I eat carbs when I'm hungry at night. As far as results go, you will make far more positive changes in your physique if you feed it carbohydrates when you're hungry as opposed to depriving it. Deprivation programs work in the short term, however you could be setting your body and mind to fail in the near future. The idea is it's a marathon, not a sprint, so fuel the machine for the long haul.