Everybody has heard the common wisdom that you should consume the majority of your calories and carbohydrates early in the day. On the surface, this makes sense: It seems like consuming your carb and calorie dense meals earlier in the day will give you more time to burn those calories off. Turns out it’s not that simple.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a good amount of evidence that consuming the majority of your calories and carbohydrates at night is more beneficial than having them earlier in the day, especially if you have a fat loss goal. There is the long standing misnomer that eating bigger at night time will lead to fat gain, but we have come to realize that food choices, total calories and macro breakdown as a whole for the entire day are what is most important. Each individual meals numbers don’t matter nearly as much as the numbers as whole at the end of the day, week and month.
Here, Honest friend and nutrition expert Alex McMahon explains why eating the majority of your calories and carbohydrates at night can help you reach your health and fitness goals.
1. Follow The Evolutionary Leader
One of the most innate reasons for this style of eating is our evolutionary patterns of fasting and feeding. As hunter gatherers, we regularly spent the day hunting, fishing, gathering, and tracking animals. Many times these hunts were done in a fasted state without food relying on stored body fat as fuel.
Digestion is an energy-intensive process, and these fasting periods allowed our early ancestors to be more active and alert without being slowed down by a full stomach while finding food. Our ancestors would return home with the days gatherings or catches ready to feast. The night was leisure time spent with others feasting on the food caught or gathered throughout the day, allowing them to relax and refuel for the next days hunt.
I’m not saying I want to live exactly like a caveman—I love the my iPhone, fridge, and running water. However, from an evolutionary standpoint our modern hunting and gathering is in the form of going to work and training at the gym. We should follow evolution’s lead, eating lighter during the day and using our nights to feast and recover from the days activities in preparation for the next.
We are designed for this style of eating. People want to typically eat bigger at night anyway, and from a practical and sustainability standpoint it fits most people’s lives very well.
2. Win Against Willpower
How many times have you heard of someone going off the rails eating a ton of cookies or a pint of ice cream at breakfast or lunch? It’s very uncommon, and the main driver behind our decision making is our willpower. Our willpower is a limited resource that we expend throughout the day with every decision we make.
Think of willpower like a bank account, and each decision is a withdrawal. By the end of the day most people have emptied their willpower piggy bank with countless decisions. This decision fatigue is why the cookie and ice cream binges happen at night, we have the least willpower to resist Ben and Jerry or the Keebler elves.
The reason? We still operate on the same sacrifice and reward systems that have helped us survive for thousands of years of feast and famines.
With this evolutionary framework, we have the basic hard wiring to overeat and store excess energy as body fat in anticipation of famine. When we did encounter these famines we had the stored energy in the form of body fat to use up. The feast and famine naturally allowed us to balance our energy intake. The problem with this evolutionary hardwiring and how it impacts us these days is that we rarely have famine. Food is overly abundant these days, and mindless eating is regularly a result. We need to construct our diet in a way that allows us to fulfill this need to eat large while not consistently overeating and causing fat gain.
Most people are are going to be able to eat lighter during the day, and make much better food choices if they know that they are going to get to eat a larger more satisfying meal at night.
On the opposite side it is going to be more difficult to feast all day, and then eat lighter at night.
Looking at things from the practical side most people are not as hungry during the day when they are working, moving, and handling stressful situations. People are going to be the hungriest at night time after they have worked all day and are ready to relax, eat and prepare for the next day. This larger meal at night time with denser carbs also triggers that satisfaction we are looking for, reducing the cravings for processed sugary desserts.
3. Carbs At Breakfast Stops Fat Burning
When you wake up in the morning your stress hormone cortisol is high, this is why you are awake and alert.
The hormone cortisol is catabolic, meaning it will break down materials in the body for energy. When it acts without chronically elevated insulin, it triggers lipolysis, meaning that it breaks down body fat for energy and increases fat burning. With high levels of cortisol and low insulin, we are in the perfect state to be burning fat at high rate.
When your first meal of the day is a huge bowl of oats, fruit and brown sugar, that brings fat burning to a screeching halt.
Once insulin is elevated excessively because of the sugars from breakfast, fat burning for the rest of the day is greatly impaired. Morning cortisol levels are already high, and when combined with elevated insulin due to the high carb breakfast it is a recipe for fat gain. Without anywhere for the sugars from breakfast to be stored by insulin, the body creates new fat cells to become the storage spot for the sugar.
4. Have Your Cake, And Burn It Too
Naturally, most folks are going to eat a dinner that is larger than lunch or breakfast because they get to cook and eat it with no time constraints or stress around the food. Being extra hungry is typical if this meal is following a hard trip to the gym or an athletic endeavor. The body has the need to restore the glycogen your muscles burned during your exercise. This means that by consuming those carbohydrates post-exercise, you will use them to repair and restore muscles before any are allowed to get stored as fat, unless you eat significantly beyond your needs.
By eating lighter during the day and avoiding dense carbs you allow the body to take advantage of fat burning hormones for a longer stretch of time. You can have your carb cake and eat it too (hopefully it’s gluten free). Think of eating light as your fat burning portion of the day. Try to consume proteins, healthy fats, non starchy vegetables in your fat burning portion of the day.
At night after a day of activity or a hard training session at the gym, consume protein and starches (yams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, plantains, white rice, or gluten free oats) and some veggies and smaller portions of fat. You should match the amount of carbs you are consuming to your activity level to prevent fat gain.These night time carbs allow you to build muscle, repair and refill the tank for the next training session.
5. Improve Your Sleep
By keeping those larger, more carb-dense meals at night time you can relax and digest while winding down for the night and getting ready for bed. Try to eat two hours prior to your bedtime to give adequate time for digestion before sleep. In the same way that the larger meals early in the day will make you tired and sluggish, this same reaction can be used to improve sleep!
6. Enjoy Yourself Socially
Nobody wants to be the person who continually orders salads whenever they are out to dinner. We want to enjoy ourselves, be social, and have a larger more relaxed meal when out with people. Good food and great people are meant to be enjoyed together. This goes hand in hand with the psychology of our sacrifice and reward centers—it is much easier to eat lighter and healthier during the day if we know that our reward is going out at night with loved ones. The key here is to make this way of eating fit your life not the other way around. When folks start allowing their nutrition plan to rule their lives it is going to be a recipe for failure. You may gain some short term success from the diet quick fix, but the long term lifestyle changes win the race.
7. What Does This Approach Look Like ?
Depending on what your goals are, a morning fast may provide benefits for you. Black coffee (or with a few added tablespoon of heavy cream) can help with extending fasts.
You can have lunch be your first meal of the day, or if you have no interest in fasting make your breakfast a protein- and fat-only combination such as eggs, bacon, and kale or leftover meat with ½ avocado and some raw bell pepper slices. Lunch should consist of a solid protein source, non-starchy veggies, and some healthy fats. You could even include a serving or two of fruit in this eating-lightly stage. A salad is a great option here.
Some folks perform much better in the gym when they have some fruit beforehand, but you will have to experiment to see if this works for you.
At night time, and post workout use the tendency to eat more calories and carbs to your advantage. Eat mostly protein and denser carbohydrates at this stage. Think steak and potatoes. Try to avoid a ton of fats in this meal as we are looking to purposely spike insulin and drive amino acids into the muscle and recover and get ready for the next days hunt or work!
This dietary approach has been very successful for my Alex’s clients who have used it—and you will find that once you adapt it feels like a much more natural rhythm that leaves you feeling sharp with great energy. At Evolve Nutritional Therapy, Alex is used to going against the grain—check out his services to be your healthiest self!