Will Eating Carbs at Night Make You Gain Fat?
Eating carbs late at night, after dinner, and close to bedtime…
That will make you gain fat, right?
Your body loves to use carbs for energy, particularly for high intensity activity, but while you’re asleep it can’t. So those carbs will just get stored as fat because you weren’t awake and active to burn them off.
In a nutshell… no. This is NOT true.
Here’s the Longer Explanation About Carbs at Night and Fat Gain.
Eating carbs, AT ANY TIME, doesn’t make you gain fat.
What makes you gain fat is being in a calorie surplus.
A calorie surplus is when you take in more energy (consume more food) than what your body needs.
Your body needs energy for everything you do. Metabolic processes. Digestion. Breathing. Respiration. General daily movement. Exercise.
If you give your body less energy than it needs to do everything, you will lose fat (and possibly muscle) as your body will use stores of energy (fat and muscle) to make up the difference.
Give your body more energy than it needs to do everything and you will gain weight, either as fat, maybe as muscle, and maybe as fat and muscle. If you want your weight gain to be muscle, you need to be doing some other things right.
The time that you eat makes no difference to whether you will gain weight or not. If you don’t consume more than you need across the days and weeks generally, you won’t gain fat.
Here’s how fat gain actually works
Your body actually stores fat every time you eat (shock, right?).
You flip between fed and fasted states multiple times a day (unless you only eat once), meaning you’re always either storing body fat, or burning it.
We’ve spoken already about your body’s calorie requirements for the day. Bigger, more muscular and more active people will have larger energy requirements than smaller, less muscular and less active people because activity requires energy and “mass” requires energy. If you’re not providing enough energy, your body will tap into either your fat mass or your lean mass to find that energy.
You can get a pretty good ballpark figure for what your energy needs might be, by using an online calorie calculator.
Your body doesn’t keep a running count of how much energy you’re providing through food, totting it up at the end of the day, and deciding how much to store as fat. It doesn’t say “oh, you ate more food than we know what to do with today, we’ll store that as fat”.
You Store Fat Every Day, Even When You’re Losing It…
Your body stores fat every time you eat, no matter how much or how little you eat in that sitting. That’s because the energy you’re providing with even a small meal or snack is going to be more than what it needs at that precise moment. You can think of this as the body temporarily storing some fat, for it to tap into later, even if “later” is in an hour (if you ate a small amount). These little deposits aren’t visible.
When you’re providing less energy than your body needs across the whole day, or week, you will still be storing fat each time you eat. However, your body will have to tap into those stores of energy more often than it makes deposits into them. The net result is that you lose fat over time.
When you are overeating and providing more energy than your body needs, your body will be adding body fat (stored energy) more often than it is tapping into those energy stores. The result is fat gain over time.
What about ketogenic diets?
Some people believe that a ketogenic (very low carbohydrate diets) approach means body fat won’t be stored, because insulin levels are kept lower.
Every time you eat, blood sugar levels rise (glucose). Glucose in the blood is just energy. Insulin is the hormone that brings glucose out of the blood and into cells where it can be used or stored. Insulin is therefore involved in fat storage. This doesn’t make insulin bad. Insulin is also involved in gaining muscle and in getting energy to all the parts of your body that need it. It is a vital hormone for survival. Many carbohydates break down into glucose very quickly and easily. This results in a “blood sugar spike”, followed by an “insulin spike”.
The theory those on keto diets propose is that by keeping blood sugar levels lower by avoiding carbohydrates, there will be lower insulin levels and therefore less fat storage.
In reality, it doesn’t play out this way.
Can you lose fat if you spike your insulin levels?
Regardless of sugar content in diet, or insulin levels in the blood, you cannot gain fat over time if you’re not providing a surplus of energy to your body and you cannot lose fat if you are providing a surplus of energy.
You’ll always flip between fat storage and fat burning, whatever you do. You just have to be burning more fat than you’re storing, by not providing more energy than your body can use.
You can lose fat over time, even if you only eat a lot of blood sugar spiking foods as long as you are in a calorie deficit. Yes, you’ll probably be storing fat when insulin levels are elevated, but they will drop back to baseline levels and you’ll be burning fat. If you aren’t taking in more energy than your body needs across the day, the baseline insulin fat burning periods will outweigh insulin elevated fat storing periods.
The diagram below shows this visually (credit to Mike Matthews at Legion Athletics).
Correlation is Not Causation
Lower carb diets DO correlate with weight loss, but it’s not BECAUSE carbs cause fat gain. Carbs are often energy dense (a lot of calories for the amount of food), less filling, easy to eat too much of, and difficult to stop eating (moreish).
Also, if you cut out carbs, what do you eat instead? Protein, usually. Protein has a much higher thermic effect. This means the body requires more energy to break down and digest it. The thermic effect of protein is around 30% of the calories it contains. The thermic effect of carbs is 5-10% of the carlories they contain. In other words, your body has to work harder to break down protein than it does carbs, so you burn more of the calories you just ate if you replace carbs with protein.
Correlation is not causation. Always remember that. Lower carbs correlate with weight loss, but lowering carbs does not necessarily cause weight loss. Lowering carbs usually results in a calorie deficit, which is what causes weight loss.
When Is the Best Time to Eat Carbs?
If you’re watching your macros and calories, you don’t really need to worry about when you’re eating carbs.
However, there may be some benefit to eating them around your workouts.
If you eat carbs before your workouts, you will have energy on demand in the blood to help you with intense workouts.
If you eat carbs after your workouts, you will use them to refill your muscle glycogen stores.
Don’t worry about this too much. Eat what you want, when you want, provided you’re hitting your nutritional goals.
If you want fat loss, watch your total calorie consumption, focus on protein and whole foods and eat whenever works for you.
What is the easiest way to lose fat?
The answer to this one is definitely different strokes for different folks.
Some people find it easiest to keep a close eye on their calorie intake, and fit small treats into their macros. Others like fasting. Some like keto as they don’t have to think about how many calories they’re consuming and they usually just end up in a calorie deficit by eliminating many calorie dense foods that are easy to over eat.
Personally, I like to focus on real food. That means eating things that are close to their natural state and have been very minimally processed. This means unprocessed meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices and dairy.
I still track/eyeball my macros and calories (as I could overeat with butter, fattier meat etc. and also end up undershooting protein), but the focus on whole, unprocessed foods means I find I get to eat more food and still be in a calorie deficit. Whole foods also means there’s a higher thermic effect from the foods I’m eating. This helps increase the size of my calorie deficit.