Many fitness magazines promote the idea of limiting your carbohydrate consumption to the afternoons and evenings. Many of you would have heard the expression “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” where you eat a big, carb-heavy breakfast, a moderate-sized lunch and a very limited amount of carbs for the rest of the day. This feeds the idea that, when the sun goes down, some magical fat-storing fairies enter your blood cells and cause all food – not just carbohydrates – to be converted straight into fat.
This, of course, is bollocks.
Your body does not know what time it is. Your metabolism runs around the clock and, although being awake and more active will burn more calories, it’s not as though your body ceases its calorie output the second your head hits your pillow.
For the past two years, I have concentrated my carbohydrate intake in the latter half of the day. From my experience in working with clients, almost everyone responds best to a similar approach.
I spent years afraid to eat carbohydrates in the evening. I also used to be one of those young women who exercised for hours in the evening and ate nothing afterwards. Facepalm.
When I first started lifting, I trained in the morning and told myself I therefore did not need carbs in the evenings. I craved carbs every night but felt like I hadn’t “earned” them, so stuck to plain chicken and vegetables instead. On rest days, I usually wouldn’t have carbs at any meal other than breakfast.
Most people respond well to loading their carbs in the afternoons and evenings for the following reasons. (To be clear, this is what I’m referring to when I talk about carb backloading, and not an intermittent fasting protocol. I am not a fan of intermittent fasting in general, and in nine out of 10 cases females would be better off avoiding any kind of fasting due to the hormonal impact it has on the body.)
- Hormonal response: When you wake up in the morning and your body has been fasting all night, it is primed for fat burning. Cortisol (the stress hormone) peaks in the morning. If you do not consume carbs at this time, your body will burn fat. However, if you have a big ol’ bowl of oatmeal, cortisol – along with insulin – will encourage your body to store it as fat. Cortisol levels naturally fall later in the day, at a time when your body can most efficiently process carbs. Insulin sensitivity is also highest in the morning, which means that your body is more able to store carbs as fat. In the evening, your body is more likely to store carbs as glycogen – which will fuel growth and better gym performance.
- Improved sleep: Anyone who has ever followed a low-carb diet will be able to tell you how much it screws up your sleep, and anyone who has wanted to take a nap immediately after eating a big meal will understand the effects carbohydrates can have on your sleeping patterns. Consuming carbohydrates causes the release of melatonin and serotonin, which improve sleep quality. It is important to note that complex, slow-digesting forms of carbohydrate are ideal here and not sugary foods such as ice cream and pop tarts, despite what the CBL aficionados will tell you.
- Less food obsession: Not eating carbohydrates in the evening is one of the most common food “rules” which people have. When someone lets go of this idea, it tends to have dramatic repercussions. They realise that food will not harm them if eaten at certain times, and they won’t wake up fat if they eat a big meal the night before. Most people instinctively want bigger meals at the end of the day, and forcing themselves to go without carbs is generally a recipe for disaster involving restriction and bingeing. It’s amazing how many people stop feeling the urge to binge when they consume even a small serve of carbohydrates in the evening.
- Easier to diet: If your goal is to lose fat, it is often mentally easier to eat your biggest meal of the day at home in the evening. In the same way that many people have no problem sticking to a diet Monday to Friday but then throw everything out the window on weekends, most people are able to diligently stick to a low-calorie diet plan during the day while they are busy with work and running errands. It is when they get home that temptation often abounds and their bodies will naturally search for more food. Instead of trying to fight it, embrace it and “reward” yourself with a bigger meal at the end of the day.
- Social norms: It is much easier juggling dinners with family and friends without having to be the one in the corner hiding from the bread basket. You will feel more comfortable about eating out if you’re not having to scramble through menus searching for the lowest carb options.
When I started backloading my carbohydrates, I slept better, had more energy, and just became a more pleasant person to be around. I stopped obsessing over my next meal, my food cravings disappeared (for the most part – sometimes I really just want a burger!) and I actually lost weight.
Now, I don’t have carbs at breakfast during the week but I do on weekends as I exercise at around noon. I function better without carbs in the morning, as they tend to make me crash. My lunches typically contain a small serving of carbs (one sweet potato or half a cup of rice), my pre-workout snack is pretty much all carbs, and dinner is where the party starts. I typically eat 800-1200 calories at dinner time, which is often almost half my daily intake.
On rest days or days I train earlier in the day, I still have a similar kind of dinner. Apart from the week before my last competition where I cut out all non-vegetable carbohydrates to make weight, I can’t remember the last time I had a dinner which didn’t contain carbohydrates!
It is important to note that the hormonal responses discussed above and primed for someone who is training in the afternoon and evenings. You should always structure your nutrition to optimise your workouts and should always have carbohydrates post-workout, if not pre-workout as well. If someone is training very early in the morning, they are often best to skip carbohydrates in their pre-workout meal/snack as it tends to cause a crash mid-session. Regardless of what someone’s goals are, or what time of day they work out, I always recommend that they consume carbohydrates in the evening as well.
Do you eat carbohydrates in the evening? Have you experimented with your carbohydrate timing?