– What and how to eat in the evening or after training?

This is one of the most common questions we get asked. Another question is, should I eat carbs? All too often people have a concept that there is a particular cut-off time for eating in the evening and after that time, one should eat and if you do, food will be transformed into fat by the body or disturb your sleep. My specialist area in My Nutrition Ireland revolves around optimizing recovery for elite athletes. So, I will pass that knowledge onto you and make it easy for you to understand everything you need to know about when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat in the evening.

Physical Activity Levels

So much of what we eat, when we eat and how much we eat will depend upon what we have been doing in the previous hours. A lot of people might finish work at 6, hit the gym or the park to do some training and travel home. They might find themselves arriving home at 8.30 or 9.30 and then wonder about eating and how that might interact with their body. If you have been training -whether that be heavy weights, cardio or high intensity workouts, you will need to replenish the energy in your body and start the repair process. We store and utilize energy in different places in the body -in our muscles, our blood and in our liver. When we exercise we use up these stores to varying degrees. Our muscles are like sponges and once we have depleted the energy stores through exercise, we need to fill them up again. So, let’s answer 2 questions here – YES you need to eat and YES you also need carbohydrates. The amount is important but you must realize the carbohydrate you eat will be used to replenish the lost energy in the muscle. I will also add, that you will still need to eat some carbohydrate, even if you are trying to lose fat. I will give an example of how to work that out.

If you have not been doing any exercise that day, then obviously you need less food, less energy and less carbohydrate. You still will need to eat prior to going to bed.

Bedtime -Body Clock

Having something to eat prior to going to bed is important for many reasons. Certain foods release serotonin which is the “feel good” hormone. Serotonin also triggers the parasympathetic “rest & recover” response in the body which promotes recovery and even helps trigger sleep. The most tissue repair and recovery occurs at night when we sleep. How much and what we eat will also depend on our bed time. It is advisable not to eat a huge meal before bedtime. Ideally, we should eat a recovery meal 60-90 minutes prior to bed or a snack 30-60 minutes before bed. Many complex carbohydrates contain tryptophan which trigger restful sleep.

You can easily and safely eat your post workout meal at 10pm or 10.30 and not have it stored as fat. Go to bed at 11.30 or 12.00 and rise at 7.30 am knowing you will be ready for another day and fuelled for success.

Food Type

A recovery meal should contain a ratio of 3 to 1 carbohydrate to protein. A lot is happening in our bodies after exercise. Muscle and tissue recovery, energy replenishment, hormone rebalance, metabolic waste is cleared up, inflammation, acidity levels brought back to normal. Eating the right food types and quantities is crucial. Tissue recovery will not occur until our blood sugar is raised and we produce IGF-1. This then signals our body to start recovery. My recommendation for athletes to optimize recovery is as follows;

  • Mixed Green Leaf Salad with dressing and a small amount of olive oil (transports fat soluble vitamins)
  • Eat a meal with 3:1 carbohydrate to protein
  • May also have a protein shake if you have been doing a lot of lifting
  • Hydrate with electrolytes if you have been doing a lot of cardio

The rational and order is simple. We first blast our bodies with the most nutrient dense food available. This importantly sends message that everything is fine, it promotes recovery and function and stops the body holding onto energy reserves (fat). This salad is digested very quickly. Then we have our recovery meal which brings us into an anabolic state (re-build). Finally, if we need extra protein, it is available. The protein shake also helps kill the appetite by reducing ghrelin (the hunger hormone) production.

Working out how much I need

The amounts will vary depending on many things. Men will require more calories than women. It will also depend upon the intensity and length of training and how many calories you burned during training. I want to make this easy for you. As long as your body and digestive system is not addicted to certain foods and you don’t have “toxic hunger”, your own hunger level should be a good indication. Here is what different sessions and meals like look like.

To control portions and amounts, we will our hands as a guide. A cupped hand is one portion of carbohydrate (rice, pasta, potato), a clenched fist is equal to one portion of vegetable and a palm size should be one portion of protein. Using the hand guide as a method of portion control, we know we require about 8 portions per day. Try to avoid or reduce refined oils in cooking. Here is what meals might be after varying sessions;

Light Training Session

2 cupped hand Portions of Carbohydrates with 1 portion of protein & vegetables/salad

Long Cardio Session

3 cupped hand Portions of carbohydrate with 1 Portion of Protein & vegetable/salad

Heavy Weights Session

2 cupped hand portions of carbohydrate with 1 portion of protein & salad & protein shake.

Please don’t be concerned about eating carbohydrates. These are the preferred energy source for the muscles and (only source) for the brain! Quality and amount are what is most important. If you drastically reduce carbohydrates, your body will simply turn down the energy dial and you will feel lethargic and demotivated. Please check the recipes section each week to find great easy to prepare recipes that will fuel great recovery. Please feel free to write to us with questions around this topic and more.