No, Never Eat at Night

As the year comes to an end, we return to T-Nation and a short article by diet- and protein-obsessed Chris Shugart. This time it’s about late-night eating, and although he understands that it’s a bad thing, he still misses the big picture and presents some very bad advice.

He begins his article with quite a cliché, citing:

An old expression goes like this: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” So, to be healthy, have a big breakfast, a lighter lunch, and don’t eat much at night.”

Actually, there’s more truth to this than most people realize. People were simply smarter in the past.

Then he continues with the premise of his article, and it goes like this.

It’s not that simple, of course, but many successful diet strategies cut off your eating a few hours before bed. Many in the intermittent fasting brigade are even shifting their eating windows: instead of skipping breakfast, they skip dinner. More than a few studies show that eating a lot before bed can have negative effects, and it goes beyond just ingesting too many calories. The devil is in the details, or in this case, the devil is in the macronutrient makeup of your pre-bed snacks.”

It’s not about “skipping” anything. That is the wrong word, and a very negative word at that. It’s about having your last meal, your “dinner” if you like, a bit earlier, giving your body some much needed rest from digestion while you sleep. And we’ll get to why this is extremely important in a bit.

Shugart continues:

Previous studies on nighttime eating paint an ugly picture. Eating a late-night meal or a big snack before bed leads to more fat gain. In short, fat metabolism is impaired. A few studies conclude this happens even if those nighttime snacks don’t result in a caloric surplus.

Eating more before bed (as opposed to earlier in the day) also raises insulin, fasting glucose, and triglyceride levels, adding to a negative metabolic profile. The body just doesn’t seem to “handle” those calories as well, which might lead to a disruption of your appetite-controlling hormones.”

It’s not about your body not handling “calories” well. Calories are “heat units,” a measurement of heat production in an isolated lab chamber and has nothing to do with food or nutrients, or how your body handles them. Calories are pseudo-science. You need to learn to use the right words if anyone will ever take you seriously. Also, stop obsessing about “fat gain,” the real problem is the health implications. While digestion takes place, everything else that’s important for health is shut down. Your body does not begin to heal, repair, and detoxify until digestion is fully completed. And the best time for your body to do this is while you sleep. Do you now see why it’s a very, very bad idea to eat late? A big meal might take 4 to 6 hours to digest, while a small meal might take 2 to 3 hours. Also, the abundance of nutrients, especially amino-acids, need to be removed from the bloodstream before this can start.

Shugart continues:

However these studies were usually conducted using average-people food. And the average person makes terrible food choices. So what happens if you switch out the carby or fatty snacks for protein? Research published in The Journal of Nutrition sheds some light.”

Well, Shugart, you’re correct about food choices, and simply taking protein will be slightly better, as it is digested somewhat quicker. However, it’s still not a very good idea.

The Study

Shugart summarizes the study as following:

“Researchers gathered up a bunch of weight-training women for this study. In one experimental condition, the buff women consumed a casein-containing protein shake (30 grams) during the day. In the second condition, they consumed the same protein shake 30 minutes before bed.

The results? The protein shake did not blunt overnight lipolysis (the breakdown of fats) and was not expected to increase subcutaneous abdominal fat. The lead scientist said, “Essentially, you can eat protein before bed and not disturb fat metabolism.”

By the way, a related study on male lifters found that those who consumed 28 grams of casein protein before bed gained 4 more pounds of additional muscle than a control group over 12 weeks. The researchers noted: “All protein ingested prior to sleep is used for protein synthesis.”

Well, again the focus is only on lipolysis and muscle gain. We already know that only carbohydrates (and to a degree seed/vegetable oils) blunt lipolysis, the breakdown of fat, so this is no surprise.

However, consuming protein 30 minutes before bed will keep your digestion going for 1 to 2 hours, and then the abundance of amino acids will need to be used and stored so the amino-acid blood levels can return to baseline. So, you will probably not be in a fasted state until after 3 to 4 hours. If you sleep for 7 hours, that is only 3 to 4 hours of ‘fasted’ sleep where your body can repair and detoxify. However, you need about 8 hours to tap into autophagy, the breakdown of damaged cells, your body’s garbage and recycling system. So, while having a light protein snack late in the evening is a tiny bit better than having a meal, it’s still not optimal for health.

So, that old saying to have dinner like a pauper is correct. If you have a pauper’s dinner 3 hours or so before bed-time, such a light meal will almost be digested when you go to bed. See, they were smarter in the past.

Now, if you’re desperate to gain muscle mass for some reason, this “protein fix” before bed might be a valid option for a while. But if you do, you need to do some prolonged fasting at least twice a year to aid your body in detoxing and removing damaged cells.
Also, be aware that digestion while you sleep will lower your sleep quality and will inhibit growth hormone release which normally peaks at around 2 to 4 hours into your sleep. Growth hormone is very important for your health and to stay young. So, even in desperate individuals, or for professional bodybuilders, I would advise against a nighttime protein snack.

Now, a better option, that also works almost as well for building muscle, is simply to have your last meal 4 to 6 hours before bed-time. By doing this, you will already be in a fasted state when you go to bed and your entire sleep will be undisturbed by digestion, allowing your body to fully release growth hormone, repair, heal, and even tap into autophagy by the early hours as you wake up.
This is optimal for staying healthy and slow down ageing.

And as for muscle gain, if that is important, it’s 99% dependent on your effort in the gym and you getting the nutrition you need during the day to recover. If you follow our species-appropriate, species-specific way of eating, as in mostly the flesh and fat of animals, you will be golden. If your diet is at least 80 to 90 % animal-based, you will always get all the nutrition you need, especially if you have meat from ruminants along with some eggs.

Also, if you eat according to our physiology, as in being fully hyper-carnivore, such meals digest really quick as they are natural and void of toxic carbohydrates, seed oils, and fiber. Even quite a large meat- and animal fat-based meal will have you in a fasted state after 3 to 4 hours, especially if raw or only lightly cooked.

To sum up, Shugart finished his article by promoting their protein powders as usual, claiming that 30 to 40 grams of protein before bed would be ideal. Well, it most certainly is not. Not if you care about your health, slowing your ageing, and avoiding disease.
Keep in mind that your body can only detoxify in a fasted state. Considering how much crap we get exposed to, limiting your detoxification window by eating late is a very bad idea, even if you incorporate some fasting yearly (and most people will not do that anyways.)

And no, eating late and then postponing your first meal, as many dimwits that are into intermittent fasting does, is not a valid option. Being in a fasted state in the morning is not as effective as being in a fasted state during your sleep. As sleep quality is much more important. Also, not eating in the morning and forenoon will eventually lead to cortisol issues.

Although the old saying is good, a better one is simply to eat like a king from morning to the afternoon, and then fast in the evening. That will have you sleeping like a king too.

Again, writers such as Shugart are obsessed with how you look on the outside, while they are oblivious to the inside; totally ignorant to how your body actually works and what contributes (or subtract) to health, life quality, and life expectancy – things that actually matters once you let go of that ego and vanity.

Funny thing is, once you actually adopt our species-appropriate diet, giving your body what it is meant to be fed, body composition kind of takes care of itself. Being carnivore, it’s so much easier to stay in good shape while having endless of energy.

If you need help with your body-, health-, and life- goals, I’m available for both coaching and consultation.

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