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Meal timing before bed
I have heard from several people over the years that you should not eat after a certain time before going to sleep, and I am wondering what if any truth there is to this assertion. In other words, is eating before bed more likely to cause those calories to go “unburned?” Conversely, is exercising after eating more likely to result in calorie burning?
To keep it simple, if the calories that you consume at night after dinner are in excess of your energy needs for the day, then yes, those calories are likely to be stored as fat. These are calories that would likely be consumed out of habit, boredom, and for taste rather than hunger. Late night eating is probably the worst time to consume excess calories, as your body requires a steady supply of fuel throughout the day when you are at work. Studies also indicate that regular breakfast eaters are more likely to maintain a healthy weight than individuals who skip breakfast. Logically, it makes sense to give your body fuel for the start of the day, and to not put in excess fuel before bedtime.
But what if you train in the evening, are hungry after dinner, and your training volume is in an upswing? Then the question needs to be answered in the context of your day’s training, your training schedule, and total energy requirements.
Meal and snack timing is an important topic, particularly if you train after work in the later evening hours. While your food timing is likely based on hunger, adequate digestion time, and anticipating the need for fuel before a long training session, body composition goals are also a consideration. And this time of year, many endurance athletes are focused on body fat loss.
When you are focused on a structured training plan and have specific race goals for the upcoming season, having the proper fuel stores to train should always be a priority, as this allows you to make the most of your training efforts and be prepared for race day. Body fat loss goals should be considered in the context of the entire day, with daily energy cutbacks at 300 to 500 calories. Calories should be cutback at times that do not compromise your energy for training and post-exercise recovery.
Let’s look at the scenario of training in the evening. Lunch may have been anywhere from five to six hours before exercise starts, which means that you are running low on liver glycogen stores, a fuel supply that keeps blood glucose levels steady. Because pre-exercise eating has been measured to improve endurance performance, having a carbohydrate snack prior to training in the evening, especially a training session lasting longer than 90 minutes, provides a good fuel boost. It can also postpone uncomfortable hunger pains that can occur during training, and take some of the edge off of post-training hunger.
Another useful strategy that can also provide fuel for training is to consume a sports drink during training. Many endurance athletes believe that consuming carbohydrate during low intensity training significantly decreases the amount of fat burned during training, but research indicates otherwise. There may be some very modest changes in the fuel burned (slightly more carbohydrate and slightly less fat), but nothing that should significantly affect your body’s fat burning abilities, and ultimately your weight loss efforts.
The calories consumed from a sports drink should not drastically impact your total daily intake, and could result in better quality training. Having a sports drink during endurance training may also help you keep some appropriate control on late night eating. One study compared the post-exercise calorie consumption of trained females who exercise for 75 minutes in the evening. Consuming a sports drink resulted in fewer calories being consumed later in the day.
Of course you would expect that you would be hungry after evening training and you should refuel after training. Muscle glycogen re-synthesis does occur at an accelerated rate in the 2 hours after training, and it is important that you consume anywhere from 50 to 75 grams of carbohydrate to start the replenishment process. For many athletes who train in the evening this often results in a late-night dinner. My advice is to always have dinner after evening training, even if it is late, but to also keep your portions reasonable.
Depending on how you time your training and post-exercise dinner, you may or may not have time for an evening snack. Definitely in individuals who do not exercise or only exercise moderately for a shorter duration, post-dinner snacking can contribute to excess caloric intake. So, while having a high carbohydrate snack could continue the refueling process after hard training. This evening snack could round out the day’s intake for an athlete requiring over 3,000 calories daily for training, while a smaller sized athlete requiring 2,400 calories daily could skip the extra snack.
You can also consider this choice in the context of the next day’s training and your body composition goals. If you are hungry a couple of hours after dinner, your body would likely welcome some fuel intake. If you plan to train again the next morning then you do likely need to continue the fuel replenishment process for that early morning workout. However, if the next day’s training takes place in the evening again, then a well planned breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack the next day should be sufficient to ensure that you train with adequate fuel stores. While muscle glycogen re-synthesis does occur at a slower rate six hours after training, your can still continue to replenish muscle fuel stores the day after an evening training session.
So, should you eat late at night? It depends on when and how much you train, as well as upon your daily energy requirements and body composition goals. If you do train at night, eat a reasonable recovery dinner. Athletes with higher energy requirements, or who plan to train in the early morning should not find that late night eating interferes with their weight and body composition goals.
Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN is a nationally-recognized nutritionist with over 22 years of experience and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs, a Chicago based nutrition consulting company that provides nutrition programs for endurance athletes across North America.