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Daily Carb Intake: How Many Carbohydrates Should You Eat Per Day? Carb back loading and other tricks

Jade Teta

Questions of carbohydrate intake and timing are always a big topic here at Metabolic Effect, and over the last couple months our email has been over-flowing with questions. Today our staff forwarded another email (copied below), which sort of sums up the frustration and information overload many of our followers are having:

“Hi ME. I am apologize if you have covered this already in your blog or Facebook, but I am confused on carbs and was hope you help. I just read a blog on “12 reasons you are not losing wait” and it said you should only have carbs post-workout and at night. I always heard to have your carbs in the morning if anything? Unless you are fasting. IF people just eat whatever they want after fasts right? Personally I feel best eating carbs in the morning and I know you say do what works for you, but I am not losing weight and I wondering if I should have them at night instead or in the 3 hour carb window some people talk about that occurs after a workout? Or, maybe I should just fast and eat them whenever I want? If you have any insight I would be very great”

First, let’s not hate on the misspellings, grammar, and omissions in this email. I did not take the time to “edit it”. Besides, my staff knows I suffer from “word dyslexia” and become “grammar challenged” as soon as I enter “internet posting mode”…….so this email kinda made me feel like I am not the only one. Besides, IMO, if you feel the constant need to correct people please consider you are likely the one with the real issue, not them. But I digress. 🙂

Back to the carb issue. As a precursor to this information, and because I am not going to go back over it here, please check out these blogs on (1) the types of carbs you may want to eat for fat loss, (2) What is the carb tipping point ,(3) General ideas on carb timing, amount and type.

So, our answer to this ME follower’s question is, exactly as she and you may have predicted, it depends on you. But, rather than leave you with that let me give you some rationale as to why all of these times might be useful.

Benefits of different carb timing strategies

  1. Eating all carbs post workout. Carbohydrates are a major stimulator of the muscle building and fat storing hormone insulin. Post-workout is a great time to include carbs because exercise is an insulin mimicker. Just the act of contracting your muscles will increase the number of glucose receptors on cells like the muscle cells. This is the same thing insulin does. So, eating most of your starch after a workout allows for increased glucose uptake by muscles which increases glycogen storage and muscle protein synthesis with less insulin needed. This accentuates the muscle building impact of insulin and de-emphasizes any fat storing effects…..the best of all worlds. So, this is a great time to have carbs, especially if muscle gain is what you are after. Do keep in mind though that overloading on carbs post-workout will immediately slow fat burning down.
  2. Eating all carbs in the morning. Insulin sensitivity is highest in the morning after an overnight fast and lowest in the evening after a full day of meals. This means less of a negative impact from starch in the morning compared to the evening with all else being equal. This approach MAY also cause some adjustment of the leptin curve making it start to peak in the early evening instead of in the middle of the night, which can have benefits in reducing hunger in the evening (we utilize this approach for many clients who have ravenous night-time hunger even after we increase protein). This strategy is also great for those who prefer to exercise in the morning. Here is some interesting research on carb, protein, and fat timing and subsequent daily intake: CLICK HERE
  3. Eating carbs at night. Carbohydrate intake is believed to raise serotonin in the brain (this is somewhat controversial) since insulin pushes most other amino acids into the tissues leaving tryptophan with less competition to cross the blood brain barrier raising serotonin in the process. Serotonin is a relaxing neurohormone that can aid sleep. The other thing having starches at night will do is lower cortisol and catecholamine levels, which can be elevated at night in people who experience insomnia. This works great for those who workout in the evening and/or have difficulty sleeping. There is a lot of talk about a study done last year on carb timing at night (what some are calling carb back loading) being beneficial. It is a great piece of information, and we have used this strategy clinically before knowledge of this study following the guidelines described in this article…………….., but don’t make the mistake of the research zealots and change your approach if morning carbs have been working for you (I call this chasing the “research dogs” tail because basing everything on research often makes you run in circles).
  4. Eat carbs before or during the meal where you typically have carb cravings. If there is a particular time of the day where you tend to crave starchy foods, there are two strategies to try. Strategy 1 is to have your carbohydrates before that time. As an example, let’s say you crave sweets or bread at 3pm most every afternoon. Ask yourself about your last meal at lunch? Did you skip carbs or overload on them? This will tell you a lot about a possible approach that may work for you. Perhaps you need to trade in the gigantic boo-boo burrito for a salad at lunch. Or perhaps you want to add a bit of starch to your tossed salad and chicken breast. Or maybe you want to save your daily carb allotment for that late afternoon snack so you can relax and attack the craving head on.

As you can see, we do not treat these things as simple one-size-fits-all questions, and you shouldn’t either. It is a pet-peeve of ours here at Metabolic Effect when approaches to nutrition are handed down like gospel as if we are all built the same. A smart approach to nutrition is one that matches your metabolic expression, psychological sensitivities, and personal preferences.

When you get confused about this stuff, take sometime to ask yourself, where are these things coming from? Right now in the health and fitness world there are a couple trends. These nutrition trends come around every now and then, and it is always the same story. Somebody, occasionally a pretty knowledgeable person who has done their homework, writes a book or describes an approach to something that has worked for them or their clients. Because we humans crave certainty so much, and are always subconsciously looking for the next thing that can finally deliver us body utopia, we latch on to these things as if they are our new saviors. Unfortunately, the gurus of the health and fitness world are not immune to this natural human tendency. Chances are your favorite fitness guru is preaching some of the benefits of the latest fitness topics as we speak. Hopefully they temper their desire for certainty and experimentation with coaching you on whether or not that strategy is a smart one for you.

The email above gives a hint as to what is hot right now………carb back loading and intermittent fasting (IF). Carb back loading is the idea that you should have all your carbs at the end of the day. Neither of these concepts are new, but they have been re-popularized lately. And they CAN BE useful tools. Their new found popularity comes about by some very smart people that have been able to effectively use these tools to their own as well as their clients benefit. You too may benefit from these tools, but then again you may not. This is why at Metabolic Effect we say you should stop being the dieter and start being the detective.

I realize this blog turned into a bit of a commentary on a number of things, but to help you in deciding which carb strategy might be best for you, here is some insight from our clinical practice working with patients. Hopefully this helps you find a solution you can enjoy, be consistent with, and get results from:

First, consider taking your fat loss diet to the next level by first reducing your overall starch intake and second by eating starches only at specific times of the day. We usually tell our clients who have graduated to this level of sophistication to limit starchy carbohydrates to 20-30 bites per day to start. We equate a bite as one level tablespoon or about 5g of carb. So this is about 100g to 150g of starchy carbs per day. We like bites because it is easy to titrate down as needed compared to weighing and measuring. Next we have them eat all of these at one time avoiding all starches anywhere else. Here is how you may decide what is best for you:

  • Workout at night? Have difficulty sleeping? Crave starch, salt and/or sweets in the evening? Find yourself ravenously hungry in the morning? If so, save your entire days carb intake for the evening. If you notice you sleep better and your hunger, energy, and cravings are better controlled the next day AND the end of the week shows improvement in body composition, you have moved one step closer to your metabolic formula.
  • Workout in the morning before eating? Crave coffee and pastries for breakfast? Notice low energy all day if you don’t have morning carbs? Find yourself insatiably hungry at night? Then eat all your carbs in the morning, and skip them the rest of the day.
  • Don’t feel hungry for most of the day until after lunch? Have high energy despite not eating? Tend to hold onto your muscle mass? Get sick and tired of worrying about preparing meals for the day and stressing about what to eat? Are able to go the whole day without food and still eat sensibly at night? Then, consider fasting the entire day and eating only one big meal (including the carbs) in the evening.
  • Feel low energy when you don’t eat? Get a foggy head and can’t think clearly unless you have carbs? Are you insulin resistant and tend to “feel hypoglycemic”? Overweight or obese? New to the fat loss lifestyle? Then you will likely be better off eating small frequent meals with each meal containing small amount of carbs (5 to 10 bites). These meals should also be accompanied with a good portion of protein.
  • Have difficulty gaining muscle? Train intensely with weights? Having difficulty recovering from exercise? Are an athlete with performance goals? Then eat carbs post-workout as well. 30 to 50g whey protein and a large banana may give you just the right insulin kick at just the right time to take your fat burning and muscle building game to the next level.

The Take Home:

Continue to listen and learn from everyone, but don’t overreact to the twenty something year old jacked bodybuilders, the blogs by the strength and conditioning elite, your best friend’s sister, and even us here at Metabolic Effect on what will work best for you. It all just becomes noise, confusion, and more shit to worry about if you can’t apply it to your metabolism and your life. Instead, put in the time, experiment, pay attention to your body and do what works for you. A little bit of insight from those who have the clinical experience to know one-size-fits-all is not a reality will definitely help as well.

It is not a question of if you should eat carbs, but rather when you should eat them.