When Is the Best Time to Eat Carbs?
November 5, 2015
November 5, 2015
The key to any successful diet is balance, balance, balance. Carbohydrates, along with fat and protein, are macronutrients that play their own roles in the body. Carbs, in particular, are an important fuel source and serve to transport all kinds of nutrients into your system. As such, there’s no “best” time to eat them. Indeed, they should be consumed throughout the day as part of balanced meals that also include the other macros. By spreading them out, you maintain a constant supply of fuel (blood sugar) and other nutrients to your body. (As a side note, balancing snacks isn’t quite as important. I usually suggest people use those to make up for what they might have missed during breakfast, lunch, or dinner.)
Some experts recommend cutting carbs after 6pm. While it’s not bad advice, if you consume the same number of calories that you burn each day (i.e. your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE), and your carbs are primarily fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains, there’s no reason to employ this rule. Those carbs won’t be stored permanently as body fat; they’ll be used as fuel and help recharge your glycogen stores—a “back-up blood sugar” supply stashed in your muscles and liver.
Think about it this way: You may burn less calories when you sleep, but you still burn calories. If you eat an apple before bed, your body will have no problem finding ways to burn off those 120 calories over the next 7 to 8 hours.
All that said, there is some indirect sense to the 6pm advice. Impulse snacking often happens in the evening. By “impulse” I mean foods eaten above and beyond your TDEE, including the bag of BBQ chips you plowed through while binge watchingStorage Wars, and the bowl of peanut butter cookie dough ice cream you devoured after your Tinder date went really, really south.
Most of these sorts of foods involve carbs o’ plenty, so the structure of a 6pm rule may help you think twice about what you’re doing.
So does that mean you can eat all of the carbs you want as long as you don’t exceed your TDEE? Contrary to what the Twinkie Diet guy and the McDonalds Diet guy claim, the answer is no. (For the record, both of them actually tempered their diets with salads or other produce. The press just failed to mention that.)
First off, you need balance. Carbs, protein, and fat all play different roles. You need all three. If you’re highly active, you probably want your carb intake to make up 50 to 60 percent of your total intake. If you’re only moderately active, around 40 percent is a better number. If you’re inactive, well, you shouldn’t be, so fix that before I tell you what to eat.
And, yes, the quality of those carbs matter. The thing you most want to avoid is “free sugar,” defined by the World Health Organization as, “all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices.” You also want to avoid refined grains, which have a similar impact on your body.
If you’re eating within your TDEE, it’s not like you’ll necessarily get fat by eating free sugar and refined grains; rather, it’s that you’ll miss the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients you’d get from eating good carbs. You’ll also bang up your metabolism with blood sugar spikes, which can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular issues. (Click here for a more in-depth explanation.)
Which brings us to “carbing” up for a tough workout. Most of the time, if your diet is (say it with me now) balanced, carb loading isn’t too important. Generally, well-fed muscles have enough glycogen to last for 90 minutes of moderately intense exercise. However, if you’re eating at a caloric deficit, that duration may be shorter because you’re not recharging optimally. So if you’re lowballing calories while doing an intense workout program, or you’re gearing up for an effort longer then an hour-and-a-half, favoring carbs in your meal 2 to 3 hours before starting is a good idea. Keep in mind that if you’re trying to lose weight, this doesn’t mean adding additional carbs to that meal. Instead, it means moving your daily carb intake around so you eat more of them at that time.
If we’re talking competition (anything from a football game to a triathlon) or any seriously long effort (like a 100-mile bike ride or an entire morning in heavy surf), then absolutely throw the previously mentioned 6pm rule out the window and make sure to carb-load the night before. Is that the best way to assure weight loss? Probably not. Is it the best way to assure you have maximum fuel for whatever you’re doing? Absolutely.
Because, believe it or not, sometimes looking good in your wetsuit isn’t nearly as important as how you perform while you’re wearing it.