Nighttime eating do's and don'ts bewilder many fitness enthusiasts. It was once thought that eating after dinner would expand your waistline, especially if you were munching on carbohydrates. Thankfully, much of that advice has since been discredited, but confusion still abounds.

Depending on your goals, it might even be beneficial to eat before bed. For example, a little late-night feeding can actually boost your muscle-building power, especially if you eat the right stuff.

If you really want to make the most of your fitness goals, don’t make any one of these four nighttime nutritional mistakes!

Mistake 1: Passing On Protein Before Bed

Problem: To get the most out of protein, consume 25-30 grams every few hours. If your dinner falls around 6 p.m., but you don’t go to sleep until after 10, skimping on a nighttime snack ups your time spent in a catabolic (muscle-breakdown) state. This can negatively affect your quest to maintain muscle mass during a fat-loss phase, or to gain it during a growth phase.

Solution: Make sure you have ample protein in your last meal before bed, which, as we just discussed, may actually be an additional "meal" after dinner. A study published in the "Journal of Nutrition" demonstrated that muscle growth continues following a protein-rich meal even if you’re going to sleep immediately afterward![1]

To truly maximize this meal, consider eating a combination of fast and slow-digesting proteins. Dairy is an excellent source of casein and tastes great when mixed with whey protein, but consider purchasing a casein protein powder, too. This combination will flip on the growth switch quickly, as well as prolonging the delivery of protein to your muscles during the night.

Mistake 2: Avoiding Carbohydrates At Night

Problem: Some people are under the impression that eating carbs at night will lead to weight gain, but this isn't true if your total daily calories and carbohydrates are considered and aligned with your goals

Weight change is dictated by the relationship between calories in and calories out across a 24-hour period, not necessarily overnight. If you consume most of your calories—or carbs in this case—later in the day, then so be it. A deficit or surplus is what's truly important. Oh, and good luck trying to train in the evening and expect to recover if you’re skimping on your nighttime carbs!

Solution: Don’t fear carbohydrates in the evening. In fact, multiple studies have observed effective weight loss in subjects consuming a majority of their carbohydrates in the evening.[2,3] Furthermore, there was even improvement in multiple obesity-related health parameters, and reports of feeling more full and satisfied throughout the day. Is this reason to abandon daytime carbs? No. But it goes to show you that your calorie deficit or surplus is more important for weight management than carbohydrate timing.

Your daily schedule should dictate your need for carbohydrates in the evening. If you train in the evening, or prefer carbohydrates with dinner, go ahead and eat them. As long as you're taking in the appropriate amount of carbohydrates in a 24-hour span to meet your goals, you’ll be okay.

Mistake 3: Consuming Stimulants Too Late In The Day

Problem: Consuming stimulants close to bed inevitably delays sleep, or most certainly interrupts it. Even if you're able to fall asleep after a cup of coffee, it still negatively affects sleep quality—specifically deep REM sleep.[4]

Sleep is the best time for your body to rest and recover from hard workouts because it's when the majority of your anabolic hormones are secreted. Taking stimulants right before bed won’t only shortchange your sleep, but also your muscle gains.

Solution: Stop consuming stimulants (coffee, caffeinated tea, energy drinks, and pre-workouts) a minimum of six hours before you plan to go to sleep. This should allow enough time for the caffeine to be metabolized to the point that it won’t affect your sleep.

If you train in the evenings, consider supplementing with TeaCrine, a caffeine complement that enhances the benefit of caffeine without the accompanying jitters. When taken alongside a small dose of caffeine (50-100 mg), TeaCrine has been shown to prolong the increased cognitive benefits associated with caffeine intake for up to six hours, rather than the 1-2-hour rush from caffeine alone.[5] Consuming less caffeine will help you better sleep at night.

Mistake 4: Relying On Alcohol To Help You Sleep

Alcohol negatively effects sleep by increasing time spent in stage one sleep and decreasing time spent in REM.[6] Of the four sleep cycles, stage one is characterized as the "lightest" and the most prone to sleep disturbances. REM sleep is our deepest sleep, where the body is repairing and recovering.

Second, alcohol intake inhibits growth hormone (GH) release. GH, which is a key muscle-building player, peaks within the first 90 minutes of sleep and remains elevated for roughly three and a half hours.[7] Alcohol has a dose-dependent effect on GH release: The more you drink, the less GH is released.[8]

Solution: Alcohol isn't a solution for your sleeping woes or good for your fat loss. A combination of a bedtime routine, balanced diet, and consistent exercise should enable you to sleep well. If this isn't enough, specific supplements, such as magnesium and melatonin, may enhance your sleep quality and length. Relying on alcohol will only further exacerbate the problem, not to mention cause adverse affects on your physique and muscle growth.

  1. Van Loon, L.J.C., Verdijk, L.B., Kies, A.K., Maase, K., van Kranenburg, J., van Vliet, S., Smeets, J.S.J., Res, P.T. & Snijders, T. (2015). Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. Journal of Nutrition. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.208371.
  2. Sofer, S., Eliraz, A., Kaplan, S., Voet, H., Fink, G., Kima, T. & Madar, Z. (2011). Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Journal of Obesity (Silver Spring), 19(10), 2006-2014.
  3. S. Sofer, A. Eliraz, S. Kaplan, H. Voet, G. Fink, T. Kima, Z. Madar. Changes in daily leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin profiles following a diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner in obese subjects. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.numecd.2012.04.008
  4. Březinová, V. (1974). Effect of caffeine on sleep: EEG study in late middle age people. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1(3), 203-208.
  5. Feduccia, A. A., Wang, Y., Simms, J. A., Henry, Y. Y., Li, R., Bjeldanes, L., ... & Bartlett, S. E. (2012). Locomotor activation by theacrine, a purine alkaloid structurally similar to caffeine: involvement of adenosine and dopamine receptors. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 102(2), 241-248.
  6. Roehrs, T., Yoon, J. & Roth, T. (1991). Nocturnal and next-day effects of ethanol and basal level of sleepiness. Human Psychopharmacology, 6, 307-311.
  7. Takahashi, Y., Kipnis, D.M. & Daughaday, W.H. (1968). Growth Hormone Secretion During Sleep. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 47, 2079-2090.
  8. Prinz, P.N., Roehrs, T.A., Vitaliano, P.P., Linnoila, M. & Weitzman, E.D. (1980). Effect of alcohol on sleep and nighttime plasma growth hormone and cortisol concentrations. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 51(4), 759-764.

About the Author

Paul Salter, MS, RD

Paul Salter, MS, RD, and Krissy Kendall, PhD, CISSN

Paul Salter, MS, RD, CSCS, received his BS in dietetics from the University of Maryland and his MS in exercise and nutrition science from the University of Tampa.

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