What are the Best Times to Eat Carbs? Find Out Now
When it comes to healthy living and weight loss, carbs have long been labeled as THE sworn enemy. But carbs are not the villain they have been made out to be. Why? Because the key to a healthy diet is balance and consistency. In other words, you need to be able to stick with it. And carbohydrates, along with fat and protein, are an important fuel source and serve to transport nutrients into the body. Once you understand that carbs are an essential part of a balanced diet, the next question is often: what is the best time to eat carbs?
Although many Americans traditionally eat particular macronutrients at certain times, are those times right for everyone? Let’s take a look at what is the best time to eat carbs for good health.
Simple vs. Complex Carbs
When considering the best times to eat carbs, it is important to first know that carbs typically fall into one of two categories: simple carbs and complex carbs.
All carbs turn to glucose and then energy in a process called gluconeogenesis. However, the two types of dietary carbs have diverse effects.1 This distinction is based on the length of carbohydrate chains, which is thought to be related to how quickly the body can break down the carbohydrates into glucose for fuel.
Simple/refined carbohydrates are carbs that only have one or two sugar molecules and are quickly absorbed into the body. These carbs include white or refined flour, sugars, including honey, fruit juice, and milk.
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are carbs that have more than two sugar molecules. However, complex carbs are generally considered to be healthier as they are more nutritious and, since they contain fiber and protein, they take longer to digest. These carbs include foods like oats, brown rice, beans, sweet potatoes, quinoa, whole grains, vegetables, and lentils.
Both types of carbs are necessary, but they play different roles in different scenarios. For example, simple carbs are able to provide energy more quickly than complex carbs. Complex carbs, on the other hand, help you feel full for longer.
Timing Carb Intake
With this in mind, we can now dig deeper into the best time of day to eat carbs, although this may vary from person to person.
Generally, most health professionals say that timing carbohydrate intake matters most when working out or for those trying to achieve a specific fitness level.
Typically, most athletes perform best with some carbohydrates in their system. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends eating a pre-workout meal with 1 – 2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram and 0.15 – 0.25 grams of protein per kilogram 3 – 4 hours before a workout.
Likewise, those who practice nutrient timing believe that consuming certain nutrients at specific times promotes insulin regulation for fat loss and muscle building. For example, you may consume a carbohydrate and protein-rich meal or snack right before exercise or immediately after training to boost insulin to shuttle glucose into muscles, which then builds and repairs the muscles broken down during your workout.
Another method people use in determining the best time to eat carbs is called “carb backloading,” which is used for weight loss. The idea behind this is to significantly reduce carbohydrates eaten early in the day, at breakfast and lunch, and consume the majority of carbs later in the day during dinner. This is thought to optimize the body’s natural insulin sensitivity, making weight loss more efficient. By loading up on carbs in the hours after exercising throughout the day, those carbohydrates are more likely to be absorbed into your muscles. This idea follows a similar concept to intermittent fasting and the keto diet.
Carbs Are not the Enemy
Regardless of timing, many experts agree that getting a proper balance of nutrients is more important than food timing practices. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65% of total daily calories. This means if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. (That is, between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day.)
You see, carbohydrates are an important part of a balanced diet because they contribute to good overall health in several ways. Carbohydrates not only provide the body energy, but they can also help protect against disease. Some evidence suggests that whole grains and dietary fiber from whole foods help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and may also protect against obesity and insulin resistance.
Even more evidence shows that eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help you control your weight. Their bulk and fiber content help keep you feeling full, meaning consuming carbohydrates throughout the day is beneficial for maintaining body composition.
Yet a major question which still exists for many people is: what about breakfast? While there is debate, breakfast is often coined the most important meal of the day, leaving many wondering what they should be eating during this meal and if breakfast is the optimal time to be consuming carbohydrates.
Some believe that the best time to eat carbs should be the first thing in the morning because you will have the whole day to use up that energy and maintain steady blood sugar. Contrarily, several studies show that consuming a higher-protein breakfast is more favorable and can benefit muscle health, support weight loss, increase energy expenditure, support satiety hormones, regulate glucose, and decrease the desire to snack at night. 2
Despite these two approaches, what you eat for breakfast simply comes down to preference and what works best for you. Even still, it is helpful to keep in mind that a traditional balanced plate for any meal typically consists of one-quarter proteins, one-quarter carbohydrates, and one-half vegetables.
Best Time to Eat Carbs: A Recap
The biggest takeaway when it comes to the best time to eat carbs is not to overly stress about timing. The overall quality of your food and getting a proper balance of nutrients is more important than food timing practices.
As a general rule, no matter what type of carb timing you follow, carbohydrates in their natural, fiber-rich form are healthy and should be included in the average diet. The key is to focus on good carbs vs. bad carbs and whether or not you are making the right choices for you, your lifestyle, and your activity levels.