Fact: The time of day you eat carbs makes no difference to your weight – it’s the total amount you eat over the day that counts.
Avoiding carbs after five is popular advice, often given by people in the fitness industry to assist their clients lose weight. There’s even a diet book of the same name. While proponents may mean well, such advice simply adds to the mythology around weight loss. Following this advice might even work in the short term, but this only compounds the misunderstanding about why.
Similar to the previous myth ‘eating at night makes you fat’ (GI News November 2007) , the timing of carb intake is physiologically irrelevant; it’s the amount and type you eat that matters. There’s not a single study on the National Library of Medicine (PubMed) database about carbohydrate timing and weight loss (however, there’s plenty on carb timing and athletic performance if you’re interested).
Like other diets that restrict a particular nutrient or food group, the advice to avoid carbs after 5pm is simply a kilojoule/calorie reduction strategy dressed up as something catchier. When you think of a typical evening meal of chicken, noodles and vegetables, it’s not hard to see how skipping noodles creates a kilojoule deficit. If you can do it, great – it is possible to eat enough grain foods (preferably wholegrain and low GI) at other times during the day.
However a common experience of evening carb avoiders is they are still hungry after dinner and that’s when TV snacking can wreak havoc. Biscuits, chocolate and sweets are common evening saboteurs and they all contain carbohydrates. (And a side note, many people don’t understand that sugar is a carbohydrate too, which results in starchy foods getting a bad rap and sugar sailing through unsullied). Unfortunately the biscuits and chocolate also contain hefty amounts of saturated fat and kilojoules as well. This carb-craving may be physiological or psychological but it doesn’t really matter – the kilojoule damage is done.
The ‘no carbs after 5pm’ rule – and its variants 4pm and 6pm – is part of a dieting mentality we know is inherently unsustainable, although to be fair it is a much more moderate ‘low-carb’ diet. By deliberately depriving ourselves of commonly eaten, enjoyable foods we repeatedly build up psychological pressure that eventually results in overeating blow-outs: the classic dieting merry-go-round.
A far more balanced approach to lose weight is to eat smaller portions of carb-rich core foods like bread, pasta, rice, noodles and the like, and choose lower GI versions combined with plenty of vegetables and satisfying amounts of lean meat, chicken, fish or vegetarian alternatives. In nutrition circles, this is what we call a ‘balanced meal’. Unfortunately for many, the ‘moderation’ message is boring and unappealing.
This situation is not helped by the diet industries who also know the moderation message doesn’t sell and come up with all manner of trumped-up benefits and half-baked theories as to why their diet will actually work when all they are doing is selling creative ways to eat fewer kilojoules.
To lose weight we must reconcile the facts we must eat less and exercise more, and all the while ensure we eat quality foods to meet our nutritional needs. Blacklisting particular nutrients like carbs or fats is not helpful to this end. Prioritising nutrient rich foods from all the food groups in suitable amounts according to our energy needs is the answer.
Nicole Senior MSc (Nut&Diet) BSc (Nut) is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist. You can find good advice and great recipes using nutrient rich foods in Nicole’s books Eat to Beat Cholesterol and Heart Food available HERE.