5:59pm … Eat sandwiches, bagels, fruit and cereals to your heart’s content.
6:01pm – STOP! Cut those carbs right back bro – you can’t eat any more today.
The above seems absurd.
But it’s how so many bodybuilders and physique athletes approach their nutrition.
For some reason, there’s this idea floating around that you can’t eat carbs after 6pm, as they’ll be immediately converted to body fat.
Despite the fact there’s absolutely no backing whatsoever to this premise, it’s one that plenty in the industry still follow, or worse, advise others to comply with too.
Aside from not being necessary, it’s also possible that avoiding carbs post 6pm could actually be having a detrimental effect on your progress and performance.
Where This Myth Stems From
I guess we have two places this idea could have been conjured up from.
First up is “logic” – and I use that term loosely.
To the uneducated guy or girl, I guess that the way the media often portrays carbs does lead them to thinking that carbohydrate is inherently bad, and the macronutrient most likely to be stored as body fat.
Therefore, Mr or Mrs newbie dieter thinks –
“Hey, I don’t tend to move around too much in the evenings, and once it’s 6pm, I only have a few hours until I go to bed, when I’m not moving at all. Therefore, I won’t be burning off many calories or many carbs, so I best cut them right back.”
While that’s completely wrong, I kind of understand why someone might think that.
That leads us on to the second origin of the myth.
Anecdotally, folk who are overweight and obese probably do eat more carbs in the evening.
They spend their nights sitting in front of the TV, cramming in bowls of ice cream, fistfuls of pretzels and gorging on chocolate and sweets.
This clearly puts them into a calorie surplus, and leads to fat gain … but then this isn’t as a direct result of eating carbs in the evening. Rather it’s an accumulation of calories throughout the day. They could eat these carbs at any time, and they’d still be converted to body fat, if said person was in a calorie surplus.
What the Science Says
The science says that calories matter.
Whether you gain or lose body fat all comes down to calorie balance. If you’re in a consistent calorie deficit, you’ll burn fat, regardless of whether these calories (and carbs) are eaten at 6pm, 9am, or 2:27 in the morning.
While it is true that you don’t burn as many calories while sleeping as you do during the day when you’re moving around, you do still burn some calories at complete rest – around 40-100 per hour in fact, depending on bodyweight and how much you toss and turn.
Plus, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates aren’t inherently fattening. It’s all about that deficit again.
A 2006 study from the Journal of Obesity also found greater weight loss and fat loss when subjects consumed the majority of their carbohydrate intake in the evening, compared to a traditional weight loss diet, with carbs eaten earlier.
The “Logic” Falls Down Further
One thing I do find funny is that often, those who advise avoiding carbs post-6pm are the same ones who preach the importance of workout nutrition, and insist that everyone must eat a carb-rich meal post workout.
Therefore, the question must be asked –
What happens if you train after 6?
Do you go with the no carbs recommendation?
Or do you stick to the advice of refuelling glycogen stores by eating carbs?
No Carbs = No Progress
Personally, while I’m not a huge advocate of focusing too much on workout nutrition, I do believe that for the vast majority of people, it’s a good idea to have a reasonable amount of carbohydrate around your workouts.
Skipping the post-workout carbs just because you train late could potentially have a negative impact on your recovery.
Psychologically too, it’s important to note that many of us do like to snack in the evenings, and can quite happily forego carbs earlier in the day, in favour of eating more later on.
Think about it – you’re sitting down with the family after a hard day, maybe watching a film, or you’re out at a bar or restaurant with friends – what do you want to do?
And you don’t want to be eating steak and broccoli – you want snack foods, and things that are higher in carbs and sugar.
Instead of sitting there, biting your hand off with hunger pangs and cravings, as you pray for morning to come so you can eat carbs again, why not plan your day’s nutrition so you can have carbs at night?
In terms of dietary adherence, this can be huge.
If you know you’ve got a delicious bowl of frozen yoghurt, some Coco Pops, or toast with peanut butter to look forward to, it will keep you on track during the day.
Eat your carbs whenever you like, just make sure you hit your total daily intake, and stay within your calorie allowance.
The only caveats I’d add are to –
Aim to get at least 20-30% of your daily carbs around your workout. Avoid extreme practices such as eating ALL or NONE of your carbs at night.
Remember – the best diet is the one you can stick to, so make your carb timing suit your preferences, and you’ll guarantee faster fat loss.