Oh, carbs. There’s so much diet advice floating around about ‘em that we can hardly look at pasta or potatoes without our heads spinning. But contrary to some carb-haters’ beliefs, this macronutrient isn’t the enemy. You just have to figure out how—and when—to eat them.
First things first: We need carbs. “Carbohydrates, which we break down into glucose, are fuel for our bodies,” says certified health and fitness specialist Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. Our brain runs off glucose and we also store it as glycogen in our liver and muscles so our body can work to its maximum ability, especially when we exercise, he says.
Eating too many carbs—especially the refined ones—can put you at risk for rocky energy and blood sugar, weight gain, and even diabetes. Eat too few carbs, though, and you’ll feel exhausted and irritable 24/7, explains White. And if you’re watching your weight or getting your sweat on regularly, the carbs in your diet are especially important.
Most experts recommend that about 40 to 50 percent of your daily calories come from carbs, and that those carbs come from whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, and vegetables, explains Pamela Nisevich-Bede, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat! Nutrition.
Just how much does when you eat those carbs matter? Well, it depends.
Along with eating the right kinds of carbs in the right amounts, you can also manipulate when you eat those carbs to fuel better workouts and even keep your favorite jeans fitting perfectly—a little trick the pros call ‘nutrient timing.’
Carb Up Pre- And Post-Workout
If there are two ideal times of day to get your carbs in, they’re before and after your workouts. About an hour or so before you exercise, eating some carbs will give you the energy you need to perform, Nisevich-Bede says. If you’re going to work out for about an hour and do a mix of strength training and cardio, snack on about 100 calories-worth, or about 25 grams, of carbs. (Check out a few of our favorite pre-workout snacks here.) That way, you’ll give the glycogen stores in your muscles—and ultimately your energy—a little boost before game time. Plus, having enough glycogen in your system can help to offset muscle breakdown that often occurs during exercise, according to a review published in Journal of the Society of International Sports Medicine.
By the end of your workout (especially if you went hard), you’ll have depleted a lot of that glycogen stored in your muscles, so you’ll want to eat some carbs, too. Research shows that your body sends those carbs to your muscles more efficiently in the hours following exercise, and restocking that glycogen will help your body recover so you don’t feel fatigued the next time you work out, says Nisevich-Bede.
If you’re trying to lose fat and support your muscle, eat a snack that contains a two-to-one ratio of carbs to protein (which also helps your muscles recover) within about an hour of finishing your workout, suggests White. Try plain Greek yogurt with berries mixed in, or some oatmeal with whey protein powder and nut butter mixed in.
Cut Down On Carbs Later In The Day
Ever seen the advice ‘no carbs after lunch’ online? While you don’t need to swear off bread, whole grains, and potatoes the entire second half of the day, cutting down on carbs at dinner (and after) may help you reach your lean-body goals.
Why? “When you eat a lot of carbs before bed, you can only use so much before storing some as body fat,” explains White.
So by nixing carbs around dinnertime, you help your body burn fat overnight and until you eat breakfast in the morning. “If you pull carbs at a certain time, you deprive your body of the glycogen source you’re used to having, so when you wake up you’ve essentially been fasting for a while,” Nisevich-Bede explains. If you sleep a full eight hours with a few carb-free hours before bed, that’s around 14 hours of fasting time during which your body can burn fat, she says.
Carb-free nights can be especially effective if you work out first thing in the mornings. Without much glycogen available, your body will continue to burn fat, according to Nisevich-Bede. (The experts call this ‘training low.’) “I’ve used this technique with clients looking to lose weight, and they see results,” she says. Just don’t plan on doing a super intense or long workout, because that lack of glycogen will likely take the edge off your performance.
If you’re going to pull carbs from your dinner, Nisevich-Bede recommends eating a bigger breakfast and moderate lunch, and upping your intake of protein and healthy fats like avocado and nuts, to make sure you’re getting the calories and nutrients you need throughout the day.
Cycle Between High And Low-Carb Days
Like intermittent fasting, carb cycling is one of those diet trends everyone seems to do a little differently, so there’s no clear-cut ‘right way’ to make it work. Whether carb cycling is right for you—and how you might approach it—depends on your goals.
If weight loss is your number one priority and you exercise a few times a week, you might boost your fat-burning by eating fewer carbs (about a few hundred calories-worth) on your non-workout days, White says.
But if fitness and performance are number one, cycling carbs this way can hold back your workouts. “If you go very low-carb for a couple days and eat them just on workout days, you’re still not working out on a full tank,” he explains. It can take a day or two to build up your glycogen stores, so if you eat more carbs on Monday you’ll see more workout benefit on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Think of it as a scaled-down version of carb-loading.)
So if performance outweighs fat loss, make sure you’re eating ample carbs the day or two leading up to demanding workouts. Sure, you may be able to scrounge through shoulder day on fumes, but you’ll want all engines blazing for leg day.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of whether you want to lose weight or slay your workouts, the quality of your carbs always matters more than the timing. First, make sure your plate is split into equal thirds of veggies, protein, and fiber-filled carbs (like whole grains, starches, and fruit) at every meal, says Nisevich-Bede. This balance should provide the nutrients and energy you need to life a healthy, active lifestyle.
If you want to lose weight, maybe bump up the portion of veggies and decrease those carbs to about a quarter of your plate, she says. If you still don’t see the fat-loss results you’re looking for eating this way, then it might be time to pay more attention to your carb timing.