Both gym enthusiasts and researchers have wondered about the concept of nutrient timing for a long time. It’s one of the most common subjects to talk about – more specifically the importance of meal timing, especially around workouts, and the “best” times to eat. But what about the “worst” times to eat?
For many years’ nutritional experts have favoured the idea of consuming most of our calories during the day, particularly at breakfast, and to keep our evening calories to a minimum. Carbohydrates in particular were “forbidden” in evening meals and late night snacking, if losing weight or getting and staying lean was your goal.
Of recent, the complete opposite became the rule when a concept known as “carbohydrate back-loading” became popular; which is basically a shorter term for the majority of calories and carbohydrates that are consumed in the evening.
With all of these beliefs floating around, it’s no wonder why many are confused about whether it’s okay or not to snack in the evening.
Let’s delve in to the research a little to see if we can shed a little light on the subject….
Is it bad to eat late at night? | What the research says…
In a 2005 study it was found that late-night meals did not lead to extra weight gain. When the same meal was consumed at 10am in the morning versus 10pm at night researchers found no significant differences in weight gain. A calorie was just a calorie no matter what time of day is was eaten.
However, a 2011 study in the Journal of Obesity showed late night eating to have a greater effect on people’s waistlines. The sleeping and eating patterns of 52 people were followed over 7 days. The researchers found that those who went to bed later in the evening generally consumed more calories in the evening than those that went to bed early.
When you think about this it’s probably obvious since the later you go to bed the longer you have in the evening to eat. However, what’s also interesting about this study is that researchers found that eating after 8pm, whether you’re are a late sleeper or not; was associated with a higher body mass index, suggesting that late night snacking could be harmful to your waistline and your six-pack!
In a more recent study it was suggested that those who tended to eat late were less likely to be successful when trying to lose weight. It was recommended that when trying to lose weight, nutritionists should pay special attention to both macronutrient amounts (protein, carbohydrates, fats), calories and eating patterns.
Eating at consistent meal times could also be of importance to those looking to achieve their fat loss and body composition goals. Late evening eating has been shown to disrupt normal body enzyme function and hormonal balance, potentially leading to excessive fat gain.
A calorie is a calorie at the end of the day – however, by snacking late in the evening you could be damaging your chances of reaching and maintaining your ideal physique.
✓ If you’re trying to lose body fat, it may benefit your goals to manage your calories well throughout the day, maintain a consistent eating pattern, and try to consume fewer calories in the evening (after 8pm.)
Eating late at night | Does the “type” of food have an effect?
We’re all familiar with certain foods that can help with gains in lean mass and recovery when consumed before bed; for example; Micellar Casein. Generally, these foods are low calorie, and mostly centered around protein, and maybe a little fat.
Late-night snacking can include a variety of things and can typically have a much higher calorie and carbohydrate content than say for example a protein shake, some yoghurt or some cottage cheese.
In a study, Baron et al. found that total protein, fat and carbohydrate consumed after 8pm was associated with a higher body mass index (BMI). That’s to say, rather than carbohydrate alone, excessive consumption of all nutrients were associated with fat gain.
Evening and late night snacking was associated with weight gain not because of the type of food, but because of the total amount of food and calories consumed after 8pm. Again, suggesting that when it comes to eating during this period a calorie is just a calorie, and excessively eating any type of food late in the evening could be hindering your fat loss, or body goals.
When trying to lose body fat, the total amount of food and calories eaten after 8pm are more important than the type. Everyone is different, so find what eating plan works for you, and if your evening foods fit within your daily macros – and within your normal eating schedule – then late-night snacking shouldn’t be hindering your results!
✓ A night-time slow-release protein shake such as a Milk Protein, with a little hit of healthy fats should help keep the calories down, as well as promote gains in lean mass during the overnight fast!
What if you’re exercising and controlling your calories – is eating late at night still bad?
To find out the answer to this question; in a study in the Journal of Nutrition, subjects completed resistance and strength training exercise combined with a strict diet. Participants ate 70 percent of their daily calories either at night or at breakfast.
The results? Both groups ended up losing an equal amount of body fat, however; people that ate in the evening ended up retaining the most muscle!
Again, a calorie is just a calorie when talking about weight loss, but, a healthy late night snack could help you maintain lean muscle whilst in a calorie deficit.
A late evening snack could also be beneficial for recovery and developing lean muscle mass.
Take Home Message – And Tips!
✓ We’re all unique; no one size fits all nutritional approach will work for everyone. Find the best meal timing and frequency that works for you, and if late night healthy snacking fits in to this then go for it!
✓ If trying to gain muscle, or minimise muscle loss when dieting, then a healthy evening snack is recommended.
✓ If late-night snacking doesn’t fit in your ideal nutritional plan, or regular eating pattern, then ask yourself; why are you eating? Are you hungry, bored, stressed, socially eating, using it as an excuse to ‘reward’ yourself for something? Consider this question before indulging.
✓ If you are late-night snacking, then try to minimise the total amount of calories you’re consuming in that meal to no more than 200-300 calories.
✓ Try not to have your main evening meal past 8pm at night, although this isn’t always realistic for some people. If you regularly eat past 8pm at night then compensate with your morning meals if necessary, as this will help minimise the potential damage to your waistline.
✓ Make sure you have some form of protein with your evening snack, ideally in the form of a ‘slow-digesting’ protein.
✓ It’s not essential that you restrict carbohydrates, although you should choose from minimally processed carbohydrate sources and low-sugar foods, and aim to eat within your daily carbohydrate targets.
✓ If restricting your carbohydrates during the evening, then make sure you’re including some form of healthy fat source alongside your evening protein. Healthy fats will help slow down the release of proteins in to your body, and help supply your muscles with a steady stream of amino acids throughout your overnight fast.
✓ Protein puddings, protein bars, timed-release protein shakes, nuts and nut butters all make great evening snack choices that can be guilt free, easy to grab and chow down – and taste good too!
Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you're concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.