A few weeks ago, I ran into an old friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time. We’d been friends when our kids were small, and I remembered him as being a little on the heavy side. Now he was much trimmer—he looked like he had lost about 25 pounds. After I complimented him, he volunteered his secret—“No carbs after five o’clock.”
Now, let me just say that I usually don’t offer nutrition advice to friends—unless they ask, of course. When a situation like this comes up, there’s always a part of me that wants to say, “I hope you haven’t cut out healthy fruits and vegetables” or, “It’s not when you eat the carbs that matters, it’s just that you’re eating less of them.” But I’m not about to pop anyone’s balloon—especially if they’ve found an eating strategy that works for them.
The carb cutoff strategy really applies to the ‘starchy’ carbs like rice, bread, potatoes and pasta, not the healthy carbs like fruits and veggies. This works primarily because people use it like a ‘food rule.’ That’s a rule like, “I only eat dessert once a week,” or “I make sure to have protein with every meal or snack.” Carbohydrates aren’t any more fattening in the evening than they are at any other time of the day. It’s just that your evening meal probably used to include them and now it doesn’t. Cut out a portion of rice, a baked potato or a pile of pasta at night—or any time of the day, for that matter—and you easily eliminate a few hundred calories. That’s why the carb cutoff strategy works.
It’s a bit like the old idea of food combining, which suggested that your body couldn’t digest certain types of foods when eaten together—like proteins and carbohydrates. Obviously, if you subscribed to this notion, you’d almost automatically cut calories. No more could you eat your usual eggs, toast and fruit in the morning—you were stuck with either eggs or toast and fruit, but not all three. There wasn’t anything magical about food combining. Any way you sliced it, you were simply eating less.
Part of the reason the carb cutoff may work for people is that the evening meal tends to be the largest. So, not eating starches in the evening might cut out more calories than if you cut them at other (usually smaller) meals during the day. And if you’re replacing those starchy carbs with, say, a bigger pile of veggies, that’s going to save you a bundle of calories too.
When it comes down to it, food combining or a carb cutoff are just strategies that might help you to limit your calorie intake. And even if they’re gimmicks, so what? If you eat less when you eat with your left hand instead of your usual right, or if you eat less when you eat only one color of food per day (one of my patients tried this—she gave up when she got to blue), it doesn’t matter to me. As long as you’re eating a well-balanced diet and meeting your nutrient needs.
Just keep in mind that if you eat more than you should—at any time, carbs or no carbs—your weight isn’t going to budge. When the carb cutoff rule doesn’t work for people, it’s usually because they make up for it during the day—packing in as many carbs as they can before curfew time.