As soon as you step into the fitness world you will come across a plethora of information related to the food that you should eat, the diet that you should follow, the timings of diet etc. many people worship proteins when they are on their weight loss journey while carbohydrates are considered villains. A very common strategy you may come across to lose weight is to abstain from food containing carbs at night. How true is this information let us understand?
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are the most abundant organic molecule in the natural world. They are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The name carbohydrates literally mean hydrates of carbon.
They are found in a wide variety of food sources e.g. rice, wheat, potatoes, table sugar etc, and are culturally one of the most commonly eaten macronutrients all across the world.
Chemically speaking, carbohydrates are defined as poly-hydroxy-aldehydes or ketones or compounds which produce them on hydrolysis.
Why are carbohydrates important for us?
Carbohydrates take part in a wide variety of bodily functions. They serve as the primary source of energy. Each gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories. Carbohydrates, or carbs as they are commonly called, also serve as precursors for many organic compounds such as fats and amino acids. They participate in the structure of cell membranes and take part in cellular functions such as cell growth, adhesion and fertilization. Apart from this, they also act as a structural component of many plants and animals. The fiber of plants, the exoskeleton of some insects and the cell wall of microorganisms are all made up of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are also called saccharides, which in the Greek language means sugar. Based upon the structure of carbohydrates, they are further classified into monosaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. This categorization is based on the number of sugar units. Mono and oligosaccharides are sweet to taste, crystalline in nature and soluble in water hence they are also called sugars.
Simple carbohydrates ( mono and disaccharides) are formed of one or two sugar molecules which get converted into glucose relatively fast compared to complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates have 3+ units of sugar. Carbohydrates having 3-10 units are called oligosaccharides and 10+ are referred to as polysaccharides.
The human body can utilize carbohydrates in three ways. Firstly, the body can convert carbohydrates into glucose molecules and use this glucose to produce energy for its day-to-day functions. If the glucose is not readily used by the body, it gets stored in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose.
Muscles and the liver store glycogen for future use when the blood glucose levels are low. The stored glycogen is utilized by a process called glycogenolysis to form glucose. The body can also convert leftover glucose into fats after the body’s energy needs are met and glycogen stores have been filled up.
Should a person eat carbohydrates at night?
Unfortunately, despite carbohydrates having so many roles to play in human physiology, the world of fitness often mistakenly assumes carbs to be the source of all evil and fat gain. Carbohydrates have been accused to cause weight gain, and more so if consumed after a certain period of time at night.
You might have heard people’s advice against the consumption of rice, wheat, banana, etc after sunset, all of which contain carbs.
Let us try to find out how much of this is the truth and do carbs really result in a fat gain if consumed at night.
Our body produces a lot of hormones in response to whatever we are feeling or going through. One such hormone, called “cortisol” is produced by the body in response to stress, therefore it’s also called a stress hormone. Cortisol helps the body in preparing for fight or flight response by activating the sympathetic nervous system. When our body is unable to switch gears from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system activation ( responsible for activities like rest, digestion, and recovery) it gets trapped into a vicious cycle of stress.
The cortisol levels are elevated at certain times of the day, during which an increased level of cortisol in the blood may be helpful. A little stress helps us perform better at any given task. Right after we wake up in the morning, the cortisol levels are higher compared to the rest of the day. Elevated levels of cortisol are desirable in certain situations, for eg when working out, or in situations that require increased alertness. However, there are situations in which increased levels of cortisol can be detrimental, for eg, when trying to sleep. Increased cortisol will activate fight or flight response, improve alertness and as a result will cause difficulty in sleeping.
Carbohydrates are the ones that come to your rescue in this situation. Carbohydrates help us manage stress levels by blunting the cortisol response. Consuming them at night helps our body shift gears into the parasympathetic mode, rest and relax better and as a result, sleep peacefully at night.
The body also performs most of its repair and recovery work when we sleep. Foods containing carbohydrates not only diminish the cortisol response, but they also provide the energy needed for processes pertaining to building muscle and burning fat.
The problem lies in consuming excess calories than what our body requires. Usually, all the “Comfort foods” are the ones that primarily contain carbs so people end up overeating and overshooting the total calories required by them. Carbohydrates also tend to retain water, so the increase in weight when one steps on the scale the next day can be due to just water retention.
All in all, one needs to understand the role carbohydrates play in one’s body and consume them in required quantities without vilifying them. Meal timing doesn’t impact one’s rate of weight gain or fat loss. Eating carbohydrates at night doesn’t make one fat, rather it is helpful in muscle building, losing fat, and sleeping better provided the food items are consumed as per the macro requirements of the body.
Author: Shobhan Ojha (INFS Faculty)
Did you follow this misconception regarding carbohydrates or do you consume your carbs even after the sun goes down? Let us know in the comments below.