Are Late Night Meals Sabotaging your Gains?

Anyone who has faced the challenge of losing weight (which, let’s face it, is all of us) has heard the old adage “don’t eat after X:00!!” But just how much truth is behind this age old piece of advice?

There are many schools of thought when it comes to daily meal timing.  One popular way of thinking about meal timing will be familiar to anyone who counts their daily macros.  This is the “24-hour energy balance” perspective, or “calories in/calories out”. In a nutshell, you have a set of goals for how many carbohydrates, protein and fat to consume within a 24-hour day.  The only thing that matters is that you reach each of these targets, and that your total calories consumed are less than your total calories burned.

Taken to the extreme, you could save all of your meals for 11:00 at night, as long as you hit your targets.  However, this theory makes sense as all of our daily activities occur between waking up and going to sleep.  On the other, our bodies are constantly using energy even when we are asleep, and there is no “zero hour” when our calorie and macro counts restart at 0.  

Those advising against eating late at night have some merit as well, but not without their own conditions.  Night time is generally when we expend the least amount of energy. We get home from work and spend the majority of the night sedentary, watching TV or continuing to work from home.

Perhaps more importantly, the types of snacks we go for after dinner are not usually the healthiest.  Those spur of the moment trips to the fridge for small snacks add up, and if you are not careful, they can quickly become the size of an additional meal.

It should also be mentioned that insulin sensitivity tends to decrease towards the end of the day due to the fact that carbohydrate-heavy meals eaten throughout the day elicit larger insulin spikes.  A greater number of insulin spikes will reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin between fasts. Decreased insulin sensitivity can lead to carbs being stored as fat due to our bodies decreased ability and need to utilize carbohydrates for energy.  This doesn’t take into account various diets that control carb intake or fasting time frames, but still leads one to be wary of carb intake later in the day.

I believe the solution to this problem comes from bringing these two schools of thought together.  We should be keeping track of our total daily calorie intake and spreading meals throughout the day so as to provide our body with the energy it needs, when it is needed.  However, the key here is on providing energy when it is needed.  This is an idea popularized by Dr. Benardot called “within day energy balance”.

A couple of weeks ago I published a blog discussing the importance of timing your meals around your workouts.  The idea here is the same. A larger number of calories should be consumed around your workout periods, as this is when your body needs them the most.  When your body is primed for fuel, it is going to be utilized a lot more efficiently for continued energy and recovery. When your body does not need the energy, it is more likely to store it for later use.

This allows you to be more flexible with your meal timing.  For example, if you are a night owl and typically get to the gym around 6 or 7 at night, then you are going to need to refuel post-workout regardless of what time it is.  In this case, you can follow the same general rules you would for your other post-workout meals, following a 3:1 carb to protein ratio. This could be brown rice and grilled chicken, or even a smoothie or shake with fruits and vegetables to provide added micronutrients.

My advice would be to do your best to plan ahead.  If you know you are going to work out early and be busy throughout the day, then start to taper off you’re eating as you approach bedtime.  Leaving 1-2 hours to digest before going to sleep is a good rule of thumb. If your schedule leads you to eat later in the day, try to plan out what you will have.  If you hate going to bed on an empty stomach, have a small meal ready to eat so you don’t get thrown off course by the ice cream or frozen pizza that may seem more convenient.

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