Weight-loss myths abound, especially when it comes to carbohydrates . One of the most prevalent rumors is that slashing carbs after around 3:00 P.M., so not eating them for an afternoon snack, dinner, or dessert , can help you shed pounds. But can this tactic actually help you achieve healthy, sustainable weight loss? SELF.com tapped three experts to find out, and the truth is, there’s no magical cutoff for when carbs are OK and when they’re weight-loss enemy No. 1. But there are definitely smarter ways to consume carbs that will help, rather than hinder, your weight-loss goals.
First of all, it’s important to realize that “carbs” can mean a lot of things.
Bread and pasta aren’t the only foods that have plenty of carbs. “Carbs are in almost everything, from fruits and vegetables to whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Nutrition Starring You , tells SELF. So, giving up all carbs after lunch would be pretty difficult.
The “bad” carbs that are most often associated with weight gain are simple, or refined, carbs. “Refined carbohydrates [like those in white bread and pasta] digest very quickly, so their sugar gets into the bloodstream very quickly as well,” Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist, tells SELF.
Complex carbohydrates , found in whole-grain pasta, whole-grain bread, and fruits and vegetables, often come packed with fiber, which can bulk up food and slow the digestion process. The result is you feel full for a longer time versus if you were to eat simple carbs—and the result of that is that you end up eating less. Hence, whole-grain, high fiber carbohydrates can actually help promote weight loss .
Now, as to the question of eating carbs late in the day: It’s understandable why people think that’s a bad idea, but it’s a fallacy.
There’s the theory that the closer to bedtime you eat carbs, the less time you’ll have to “burn” them off, meaning the carbs will convert into fat as you sleep. That’s a myth, says Talbott. What’s true is that carbohydrates are converted into glucose for energy , and some get stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen , says Talbott. Excess glucose—in other words, sugar that your body isn’t able to use right away or convert into glycogen—can be stored as fat , he explains.
But that’s not a carb problem, that’s a math problem. Eating too much of any food, carbs or otherwise, can result in eating too many calories, and extra calories can get stored as fat.
Plus, sometimes you might need a good dose of carbs in the evening.
If you like to exercise after work, it’s important that you give your body the energy it needs. “Carbs are fuel for your body the way gas is for your car,” Harris-Pincus explains. Having a well-balanced afternoon snack with complex carbs, protein, and fat can help you power through an after-work workout, Drew Ramsey, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and author of Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients That Fuel Brainpower, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health , tells SELF.
What it really comes down to is that it’s not about when you eat, but about what you eat (and how much of it).
If you’re cutting back on refined carbohydrates after 3:00 P.M. and instead eating whole foods—including complex carbs—that keep you fuller for longer then sure, you could lose weight . But it’s not because you didn’t eat those high-calorie, low-nutrient foods after a certain time of day—it’s because you didn’t eat those high-calorie, low-nutrient foods at all. Cutting refined carbs will help you choose more nutrient-dense options that have fewer calories and tend to make you feel more satiated, says Talbott. That can translate into a calorie deficit , which is necessary when you’re trying to lose weight.
Curbing carbs at night won’t work if your portions are still larger than you need. If you’re not eating balanced, satisfying breakfasts and lunches, you might be tempted to eat more than necessary for dinner, says Harris-Pincus. That can make it harder to lose weight, even if the food you’re eating is lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. “Ideally, you want to build your meals with a healthy balance that includes about half fruits and vegetables, a quarter lean proteins, and a quarter whole grains,” while sticking to serving sizes that are appropriate for your fitness and weight-loss goals, she explains.
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