Confession: I love carbs!
Isn’t life so much better when you get to enjoy smoothies, sweet potato chips, noodles or an epic quinoa salad?
Gone are the days when diet fads strictly promoted carb-free meals (and people willingly followed). Believe me, I tried it once many years ago and found that cutting out our body’s main energy source did more harm than good.
As you already know, carbohydrates are essential in fueling bodily functions and physical activities.
These days when I train or coach my clients, there’s one question that keeps popping up: When is the best time to eat carbs?
Should carbs be eaten at breakfast? Consumed at dinner? After a workout? Or does timing even matter at all?
There are different studies and opinions on this topic, so I get why it can be confusing for some. This week, we’re going to examine some views to learn the best time to eat carbs… or find out if it matters at all. Then I’ll give you my best practical tips for you, so you can have your cake and eat it, too. 😉
Before we dive into it, let’s quickly look at Nutrient Timing.
What is Nutrient Timing?
Sounds science-y, doesn’t it? But it’s easy to grasp.
Nutrient timing is a popular nutritional strategy that involves the consumption of combinations of nutrients – primarily protein and carbohydrates – in and around an exercise session.
Simply put, it means eating specific nutrients in specific amounts at specific times (such as pre-, during and post- exercise) to maximise benefits on performance, body composition and health.
Clock-guided nutrient intake can be beneficial to optimal body performance, brain activity and a balanced mood. And this in turn, can help boost productivity at work, in your workouts, and when out in social situations.
Not surprisingly, nutrient timing was adapted to carb consumption. Studies suggest that the strategic intake of carbs could help people perform better and get leaner.
Sounds good but is it true?
Rumour Mill At The Gym?
Opinions on carb intake times vary, and you’ve probably heard one of these before:
- Pre-workout: Have a carb-rich snack with protein like oatmeal, almonds, and a banana for ‘fast acting’ energy you need for exercise.
- Post-workout: Eat starchy carbs (e.g. sweet potato, rice), so your body can use these for recovery vs. fat storage
- Morning: “Front load” carbs at breakfast, so you’ll have time to burn them during the day
- Night: “Carb back-loading” or limiting carbs until later in the day for those who want to lean out and gain muscle
So you may be wondering… Which is correct? What’s the best time to eat carbs?
Before we go there, let’s remember that there are many factors that can affect a person’s weight:
- Exercise (type, length, intensity)
- Body composition
- Sleep schedule
- Health conditions
- Food choices
- And the time of the month for women (our weight can fluctuate due to changing hormone levels)
Of course, it’s best to keep all those in tip-top shape. Because if you work out daily yet neglect sleep and a healthy nutrition, then you won’t get the best results, right?
Since nutrient timing was introduced in the early 2000s, a lot of science and research has already changed. And whilst studies have found it to be beneficial, the positive effects were mostly short term. For instance, just because you see results from eating carbs 30-45 minutes post-workout doesn’t mean you’ll see the same effects in the next 3-6 months.
Recent data also suggests that the amount of protein and carbohydrate you eat in a day is more important for your body than nutrient timing strategies.
In fact, this is what I believe to be true based on my experience of working with thousands of women over the years, especially when we are talking about normal people, not athletes or fitness models.
So What Does This All Mean?
It simply means that research constantly evolves, especially around nutrition and health. There are new discoveries daily.
When it comes to your health, it’s okay to use a guide to help you make informed decisions on food. But don’t be too obsessed with it. Instead, learn to listen to your body’s needs.
What you put in your body, how much, and how you support it with healthy habits such as exercise, sleep and mindfulness are far more important than worrying about when to eat.
Clock Guide For Carb Eating
Here’s the general guide:
- Anytime during the day: Fibre-rich carbs such as vegetables, beans, peas, legumes and low-sugar fruits (see list of fruits here). Because these are rich in fibre, they’re digested slowly and help control blood sugar levels and hunger.
- Within 3 hours or so after exercise: Starchy carbs such as corn, grain breads, grain pasta, sweet potato, acorn squash, oats, quinoa, amaranth and rice. After exercise, muscles will burn these more efficiently.
- Avoid as much as possible. But if you must, then eat within 3 hours after exercise: Refined sugar such as sports drinks, processed foods, fruit juice, soda, desserts and dried fruits.
- If your goal is to lose weight, avoid 3 hours before exercise: Starchy or refined carbs, fruit, protein bars and high-sugar snacks. These foods are high in carbohydrates that break down into glycogen (stored sugar) in your body. Which means that during training, your body will burn these for the first 50-55 minutes, and therefore it’s less likely that you tap into your fat reserves.
Remember, there’s no hard and fast rule that’s proven to be the best time for eating carbs. Instead, I encourage you to be observant and track the quantity of your carbs for best results.
Here’s the recommended amount of carbs:
- For fat loss, aim for a carb intake of between 50-100g/day. This will ensure that you’re supporting important body functions as well as your workouts, yet you’re not compromising fat burning.
- For overall calorie intake (macro split), aim for approximately 20-25% carbs, 30% protein and 45-50% fats, with the emphasis on vegetables. Limit fruit intake to 1 serving per day.
- Be mindful of the portion sizes and the quality of food you eat. It’s important not to overload the digestive system with large meals. Remember that your stomach in its natural state is only the size of your fist.
- For higher satiety, instead of overloading on carbs, consume more of real wholefoods from these food groups: wildly caught meats (grass-fed beef, wild salmon), fruits, non-starchy vegetables, sprouted seeds and beans, and raw fermented dairy products (probiotic yogurt, raw cheeses and benefit-packed kefir).
So what’s the best time to eat carbs? The 3-hour window post workout.
The best time to avoid carbs? The 3-hour window prior to the workout.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get obsessed with losing weight and trying to find the strategies to get there. From what to eat, how much to eat… and when to eat.
But we know that’s just the surface. And we know that what we put in our bodies and how we care for it consistently are far more important than the timing for eating carbs.
Sure, it’s okay to follow a guide on when to eat carbs, but make sure that the essentials are met first. That is, the quality of food you eat and the healthy habits that support it.
How About You?
Have you ever followed a specific timing for eating carbs? If so, how did it work out for you? Share what you think in the comments below. We can learn from one another!