The Best Time to Eat Carbs on a Low-Carb Diet

Bowls and spoons of various legumes
Your body uses carbohydrates to fuel itself. (Image: haveseen/iStock/Getty Images)

Timing your carbohydrate consumption while following a low-carb diet is a controversial topic. Some low-carb proponents recommend eating carbs mostly in the morning, while others suggest you eat most carbs at night. Still others say it's best to eat most of your carbs prior to working out. Unfortunately, data to support specific timing of carbohydrates on a low-carb diet is lacking.

Carbohydrate Timing and Fat Burning

A current carbohydrate timing theory proposes that you eat most of your carbohydrates in the morning. The idea is that by consuming your carbs early in the day, your body burns them off and then burns fat for the rest of the day. This strategy is meant to help enhance weight loss.

Unfortunately, this theory remains unproven. Also, your liver and muscles store carbohydrates for back-up fuel in the form of glycogen. When carbohydrates are unavailable, the body converts glycogen to glucose to keep your body fueled. On the typical low-carb diet, you'll have enough glycogen stores each day to help make up for lack of carbs.

Exercise and Carbohydrate Timing

Another theory for carbohydrate timing is that it's best to eat the bulk of your carbs prior to workouts. The idea is that you'll burn all the carbs you take in during the workout and keep your body in fat-burning mode. But no studies have looked at whether eating most of your carbs prior to working out increases fat-burning.

You may want to save the bulk of your carbs to eat prior to working out in order to have the energy to power through your workout. However, that might not be necessary either, according to an article published in the November 2011 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine. The authors contend that low-carb dieters have the option of taking a preworkout supplement with common ingredients like creatine, beta alanine and branched-chain amino acids. These substances provide energy for working out without the need for additional carbohydrates, according to the authors.

Eating Carbohydrates at Night

There is some limited data to support the strategy of eating most of your carbohydrates at dinnertime. Researchers assigned 78 police officers to either a standard weight-loss diet or one requiring carbohydrates to be eaten mostly at dinner. The authors followed the groups for six months to evaluate the impact of the two diets and found that eating more carbs at dinnertime resulted in reduced appetite, more weight loss and greater improvement in fasting glucose and leptin. Blood samples showed that eating carbs in the evening beneficially modified leptin -- a satiety hormone -- and adiponectin, a protein that regulates insulin secretion. The authors stressed that additional research is needed to confirm these findings. The study was published in the journal Obesity in October 2011.

Tried and True

Currently, there isn't enough research to recommend specific timing of carbohydrates when following a low-carb diet. To maintain balanced energy levels throughout the day, it's best to stick to the standard pattern of dividing your carbs evenly among your meals and snacks throughout the day. Aim to get the bulk of your carbohydrates from nutrient-dense foods that are naturally low in carbs, such as nonstarchy vegetables. Some examples include eggplant, artichoke, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and leafy greens. If you make smart choices, you should have no problem fitting carbohydrates into each meal for a well-balanced plate.

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