Snacking has long been the perfect complement to a late-night movie or get-together. It has a way of making everything more pleasurable. Back in the days before all the hoopla surrounding carbs and calories, I wouldn’t even think twice about indulging in a bowl of popcorn while watching our favorite TV shows after dinner. There was never a time I hesitated to eat a banana split with friends at the neighborhood ice cream parlor; meeting friends for dessert on weekend nights was the thing to do.
Fast forward twenty years later, and I’ve definitely become more observant in how my weight fluctuates with my dietary choices–particularly when the scale starts to creep up after a week of after-dinner snacking and ‘desserting.’ But abstaining from the evening munchies seems to help stabilize my weight–sometimes I even wind up losing a couple of pounds.
So is it the time I stop eating that makes the difference? Here’s the fact and fiction of it.
Fiction: Eating Past 6pm Leads to Weight Gain
As I had analyzed my late-night eating habits and weight over the years, I wondered if eating late was the reason I would gain weight. I assumed I was gaining weight because I wasn’t giving my body enough time to burn off the calories before I went to bed, and when I was able to curb my evening cravings, I thought my weight loss had everything to do with the fact that I stopped munching at 5pm rather than 8pm.
But I was wrong. Although we may all wish there was a magic solution to losing those extra pounds by just changing the hours when we eat, there is no evidence to support this theory.
Fact: It’s Not About What Time You Eat
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Weight Control Information Network website, “it does not matter what time of day you eat. It is what and how much you eat and how much physical activity you do during the whole day that determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight.”
Although everyone’s bodies are different— some are fortunate enough to have faster metabolisms (lucky dogs)— it generally comes down to the science of “energy in” and “energy out.”
As MIT Medical Community Center states, “It’s true that you burn fewer calories when you’re sleeping than when you’re awake— but it’s the total amount of calories you eat (vs. burn) in a given day that matters most, not the time of day you eat those calories. Any extra calories above what you need, consumed at ANY time of the day, may be stored as body fat.”
Now knowing this, I realized I hadn’t taken into consideration the amount I was eating throughout the day— and that perhaps my usual 8pm snack splurge was more of a problem of excess calories and carbs than a time of day issue. I was gaining weight because I was exceeding the amount of carbs and calories I needed for the day, not because I was eating late.
Here’s a little background on calories and carbohydrates and some guidelines on how to estimate how much you’ll need in a day to gain weight, lose weight, or simply maintain.
What are Calories?
Calories are energy you need to move, breathe, pump blood, and stay warm. While we need calories and the energy they provide to survive, when we eat more calories than we burn, the excess is stored as fat.
What are Carbohydrates?
Named after their chemical make-up— carbon, hydrogen and oxygen— carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They aren’t just found in the the sugary, starchy stuff that comes to mind when someone mentions “carbs;” carbohydrates are also found in healthy stuff like fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products.
There are two types of carbohydrates to consider: complex carbohydrates are the “good carbs” because they are less processed, more slowly digested, and high in dietary fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains). Simple carbohydrates are known as the “bad carbs” because they are more quickly digested and can lead to metabolic diseases like diabetes. They are added to processed foods in the form of refined sugars (breads, crackers, cookies).
The key is to eat more of the good carbs so that you are getting the energy and metabolic benefits from natural sources rather than the sugar crashes and blood sugar imbalances that result from eating simple carbohydrates. Too much simple sugar also dramatically hinders the process of reducing stored body fat.
How Many Calories Do I Need?
There are three main factors to consider when you’re trying to determine how many calories your body needs per day. The average active person needs about 2,000 calories in a day, but you may need more or less depending on a few factors. You’d be surprised how much this varies based on:
- Basal metabolic rate: the amount of energy your body needs to function at rest.
- Physical activity: how much you’re moving!
- Thermic effect of food: the increase in metabolic rate after ingestion of a meal.
2,000 calories is the general rule of thumb, but if you are not very active throughout the day or have a slow metabolism, you will likely need to cut your calories. When I calculate my BMR, I was shocked to learn that I really only need to consume about 700 calories a day at my age and physical activity level. On the other hand, if you are a marathon runner with a fast metabolism, you’ll need to consume more calories for energy.
Or as Ultra-Marathon Man Dean Karnazes puts it:
“That story pretty much summarizes my early diet as an ultramarathoner. During those protracted endurance events I was burning roughly 500 to 700 calories per hour. With some races lasting forty or fifty hours that equated to roughly 29,000 calories, or two weeks worth of food in a clip. I figured I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted and get away with it.”
How Many Grams of Carbs Do I Need in a Day?
According to the Mayo Clinic, 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. That’s equal to about 225 to 325 grams of carbs if you eat 2,000 calories a day. Your carbohydrate requirements will vary depending on your age, sex, activity level, and overall health.
When Carbs and Calories Turn into Fat
Your body uses mostly carbohydrates and fats for energy, but will burn the carbs first. After carbohydrates convert to glucose for energy, your body will burn them immediately if needed, or they will convert to glycogen to be stored in the muscles and liver for in between meals. If you eat more calories from carbs or other sources than your body can use, the cells store the excess as fat.
We can deduce from this that my weight was a direct result of the amount of carbs, calories, and fat I was consuming, not what time I was consuming them. By the time I ate my dinner, I likely had already eaten my 700 calories for the day.
It didn’t matter if I ate them at 5:00pm or 7:30pm—it was the extra calories I wasn’t burning, and that’s what was causing the weight gain. And if you’re anything like me on a naughty day, you may meet your caloric intake by the time you finish lunch, which means anything consumed afterwards are extra calories getting stored as fat.
It’s simple science if you think about it: energy never disappears, it just transforms into something else. In this case, it’s weight.