Nutrition Myth: No Carbs After 6pm.
You can eat carbs after dark!
It's not hard to find biased content in the nutrition industry - everyone has something to sell or a point to prove! At IFN, we like to present a for-and-against summary for every myth we look at, before we give our expert opinion for you to digest. This will help you understand why a myth exists and then determine whether or not it holds any value for you.
I bet you have heard of this one, and maybe you have even tried it before. Fair enough! There are some big names in the fitness industry that promote this idea, like Bob Harper from The Biggest Loser (America).
On the most basic level, I can understand why people subscribe to this theory. Generally this myth is directed to people looking to decrease their fat mass.
But does it work? Do you really need to avoid carbs after 6pm to shed fat? Or is there a better way?
Let’s have a look at the key points on either side of the carbs after 6pm argument, to develop an insight into what this myth is based on.
Arguments for this myth.
- People are generally less active at night time.
- Want to avoid excess carbohydrates being stored as fat.
- Simple and easy to follow.
Arguments against this myth.
- Overall carbohydrate and energy intake is more important than timing.
- Most people exercise after work, making dinner the optimal meal to refuel carbohydrate stores.
- Enjoy dinner and avoid unnecessary stress.
The Coaches View.
This is definitely not a nutritional protocol that I advocate. While there is merit in varying carbohydrate intake throughout the day, but this would only be employed if macronutrient and energy intake is already optimized. I always prioritise carbohydrate intake around exercise and personal requirements, as opposed to the time of day.
Think of carbohydrates as ‘performance fuel’ as they are the primary fuel for exercise of at least moderate intensity. When you exercise, carbohydrate stored in the muscle is broken down to eventually create energy for movement. The body can only store a certain amount of carbohydrates (stored as glycogen) in the muscle and liver.
After you finish an exercise session, the glycogen that was broken down to energy needs to be replaced. The body recognizes this and increases the sensitivity of muscle cells to promote carbohydrate storage via up-regulation of GLUT-4 and eventually insulin (once carbs are consumed). These factors create a great opportunity to consume carbohydrates to refill the glycogen stores.
It is true that excess dietary carbohydrates can be stored as body fat. However, this only occurs when they are in excess of body’s requirements (glycogen is filled). If consuming carbohydrates after exercise, carbohydrates will be used to refuel the body’s glycogen stores.
The whole argument that people are less active at night is debatable. Now it is true that after 6pm, there is not a great amount of time until people go to sleep (say 5 hours). Therefore, the argument of reducing carbohydrate intake is mildly plausible.
But lets think about it for a second. Most people work through the day and exercise afterwards, usually starting their session between 4-6pm. When these people finish their exercise sessions, their muscle glycogen needs to be replenished, which can only occur via carbohydrate intake.
As previously mentioned, after exercise the body is primed to store carbohydrates to be used as fuel for later performance. Therefore it makes sense for these people to consume carbohydrates after their training (most likely at dinner) to restore their glycogen in the muscle.
What if I exercise in the morning?
You will also benefit from carbs after 6pm. If you wake up early to train, it is unlikely that you will have sufficient time to eat a meal containing sufficient carbohydrates and have time for it to digest before your workout.
By consuming carbohydrates the night before, you will have sufficiently stored glycogen to fuel your workout the next day.
What if I’m not exercising at all?
Carbohydrates are still important, although the quantity you require will decrease (although this depends on your goals).
If you haven’t exercised that day, and are not planning on in the next few days, carbohydrate timing is not as important. I would recommend consuming your carbohydrates in the manner that best suits you.
There is no need to avoid carbohydrates after 6pm even if you are not exercising. Overall intake will be more important, as opposed to particular timing.
This article was written in July 2014. If you want to hear the latest from Tom Fitzgerald and Integrated Fitness & Nutrition, you are welcome to sign up to our mailing list below
Perhaps my biggest gripe with eliminating carbohydrates after 6pm is not based on the science alone. Dinner is often the only meal that people can take the time to enjoy their food, company and relax. I do not believe we should compromise this without absolute necessity, which is very rare.
Breakfast and lunch are often consumed quickly or in a rush, and often with other things on your mind. More often than not, breakfast and lunch come from prepared meals that need to be reheated or are purchased on the go. While I am not saying that these meals cannot be nutritious and tasty, but eating these meals just isn't the same as a nice dinner in my opinion.
Why add unnecessary stress and restriction to the meal that people can sit down and enjoy?
Too many ‘experts’ get bogged down in the science of nutrition and trying to perfect every aspect of an individual’s nutrition intake. More often than not, their clients get bored or frustrated and progress soon halt, leading to frustration from both the 'expert' and client. In reality, the science is useless if it can’t be put into a useable and adherable package for every individual.
So that’s it, you can eat your carbs after 6pm and you probably should! Obviously, I would recommend healthy carbohydrate sources as part of a balanced nutrition plan tailored to your individual needs.
Don’t use this as an excuse to eat anything and everything once the sun goes down, but do take the time to enjoy your evening meals.
3 points to remember.
- Prioritize carbohydrate intake around exercise (primarily after exercise).
- Control overall carbohydrate intake relative to your needs and goals.
- Take the time to enjoy dinner and eliminate the stress from eating.