I’ve woken up in some strange places. There’s always that moment of slight panic when you realise you’re not entirely where you expected. One such time I woke up on the top deck of a bus. Not too bad you might think, except this bus wasn’t moving, and the lights were off, and it was parked in a bus garage. In my slumber, I’d slipped down between the seats and the driver hadn’t spotted me before locking it all up. Despite my drowsiness, I managed to open the emergency door and climb over the bus garage’s razor wire gate to live to fight another day.
While this kind of self-induced tiredness is an extreme example, I haven’t always managed to sleep that well in general. Not really because of burning the candle at both ends, but more because I’d work late, fall into a social media black hole, and go to bed with my brain so wired, it’d take me another couple of hours to actually drop off. This all changed when I altered my pre-bed routine, including what, and when I ate in the hours leading up to bedtime. Often my clients will ask me if it’s possible to improve their sleep through making changes to their diet. The answer is yes, and it might not be in the way you’d expect.
Missing a night’s sleep might make you feel terrible initially, but it’s no big deal if you catch up. Chronic lack of sleep, however, is no joke. If maximising your gainz is a concern, and will affect you in a number of ways:
- It will make you weaker
- It will make you almost twice as likely to get injured
- It will make you more likely to lose muscle than fat if you’re on a diet. I’m not kidding. In a study by Nedeltcheva et al. sleeping 5.5 hours a night rather than 8.5 decreased the proportion of weight lost as fat by 55%. You still lose the same amount of weight, it’s just that you’re losing muscle instead.
- If you sleep less, you’re more likely to eat more. Yes even if you’re tracking macros. Just because you didn’t put it into MyFitnessPal doesn’t mean that you didn’t eat it. No sleep makes it harder to stay on track.
So, what can we do about this? The answer, which in fact might be the answer to all of life’s problems, is to eat carbs.
Ever eaten a big meal and fallen into a “carb coma”? The idea is that blood sugar has risen quickly, only to later crash, leaving you devoid of energy. This is the post-Sunday roast feeling, perfected by grandparents across the land; that leaves you unconscious on the sofa for 40 minutes while the antiques roadshow is on. This feeling is known as post-prandial somnolence, and actually has nothing to do with blood sugar. Once thought to be caused by a redistribution of blood flow; the sleepiness felt after food is more likely to be because of a response of gut hormones affecting the body’s sleep centres. Regardless, if eating carbs causes drowsiness, then eating them at night is a safe bet.
Another effect of eating carbohydrates in the evening is that they also indirectly cause sleepiness. When you’ve eaten carbs at night, after a host of physiological processes, you end up with more of the amino acid tryptophan in your brain. Tryptophan is then converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a sleep-promoting effect. More serotonin equals more snoozy time. Strike two for evening carbs.
Whilst this sounds simple, as often the best diet techniques are, in reality, a lot of people need persuading. The idea that carbs after 6 are going to fatten you up like a turkey before Thanksgiving is a myth that won’t seem to die.
The unfounded terror caused by the idea that carbs eaten in the evening turn to fat overnight is strewn around the internet like sneezing panda, but as with most irrational fears, there is zero truth to the claim.
Energy balance seems confusing, but it’s pretty simple. If a late night carb fest results in consuming more Calories than you burn, then you’ll gain fat. If it doesn’t, you won’t. Eating carbs in the evening then isn’t a bad thing. There might actually be a benefit to evening carbs during a fat loss diet:
- Keim et al. 1997 found that eating more carbs in the evening contributed to less muscle loss during dieting than a morning eating pattern
- In 2011, Sofer and colleaguesput people on a 1,300 kcal to 1,500 kcal diet for 6 months. The people in the study were split into two groups, one group ate carbs evenly split between meals, while the other had most of them in the evening. By the end of the study, the evening group had actually lost more fat, while staying fuller and improving their hormonal profile
Regardless of where you eat your carbs, they don’t make you fat, excess Calories do.
How you get your night time carb on is entirely up to you. My preference is for oats in some shape or form. Although usually viewed as a breakfast food, oats with milk, bananas, and cinnamon are my go-to evening feast. Along with some greek yoghurt to cover the protein end of things, the recipe below is what I normally go with.
Don’t avoid carbs in the evening. In fact, setting up your diet so that you do actually eat some in the hours before bed will result in better sleep which will improve your gym performance and aid fat loss.
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