There are several myths in the nutrition and fitness world surrounding carbohydrates (or “carbs”) and their effect on our health. Most people believe carbs are “the devil” — the reason they gain weight. One of the biggest myths we hear is that if you eat carbs at night, they will turn to fat. There is nothing farther from the truth.
Carbs are an important macronutrient, required for your body to perform at its best. In fact, consuming carbs at night can actually reduce stress while helping you build muscle and burn fat. Don’t believe me? Then keep reading.
When we are stressed, our bodies produce a naturally occurring hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress as part of our body’s “fight or flight” response, and it can affect every cell in our body.
Cortisol activates our sympathetic nervous system (sending commands to our brains such as “Run, Lift, Fight, Act Now”). When we are unable to properly shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode (commands such as “Rest, Digest, Recovery”), we can become caught in a vicious cycle of stress overload.
We should manage our cortisol levels so they peak at the right times, which include when we wake up in the morning, during our workouts and when we need to be alert and focused. However, we don’t want to spike our cortisol levels at the wrong times, either (i.e., just before bed or when meditating or relaxing), as this will lead to a state of stress. Reducing cortisol production allows our bodies to calm down so we can rest and recover.
Carbs can help us control our stress levels by blunting our cortisol response. Consuming them in the evening allows our bodies to tap into that parasympathetic mode, so we can ease into a more restful state of mind and eventually into sleep.
But that’s not the only benefit. Your body undergoes most of its repair and recovery while you’re sleeping, utilizing both protein and carbs as energy sources to repair your muscles. By eating carbs at night, not only are you blocking cortisol production, but you’re also providing the necessary resources for your body to build muscle and burn fat.
Of course, don’t take this as a license to eat pizza before bed; you still need to eat healthy and ensure your calories are in check, maintaining a caloric deficit or at neutral if you want to lose weight. You should also focus on carbs that are unrefined carbs such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Your diet should be evaluated based on weekly nutritional behavior and objectively based measurements, not by a singular item or meal-timing strategy. But at least now you know the truth about carbs — so go ahead and have that slice of bread with dinner!
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