Some would say our love/hate relationship with carbohydrates has gotten a little out of hand and made eating a lot more complicated than it needs to be. It’s easy to see where our confusion originates. Carbs, after all, provide us with our body’s primary source of energy after they are broken down into glucose or blood sugar. On the flip side, carbohydrates drive up insulin, causing our bodies to hold onto fat. The best way to get a grip on this carb conundrum may be to recognize and avoid the worst kind of carbs for your body (the highly processed, sugary, refined carbs) and figure out the best and worst times to eat carbs for your health and lifestyle.
We asked nutritionists and other experts for help. Here’s how they identified the worst times to eat carbs, and for even more healthy tips, be sure to check out our list of 15 Underrated Weight Loss Tips That Actually Work.
The worst times to eat carbs will vary from person to person, so you have to evaluate your body and your lifestyle, says certified nutritionist Reda Elmardi, CEO of StrongChap.com. If you don’t exercise and also have a sedentary job, don’t eat high carb meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner; cut carbs from one or two of those meals, he says.
“If you are very active consistently throughout the day then anytime is fine to have carbs—just don’t overdo the calories,” says Elmardi.
The physical therapist and bodybuilder advises people who are mostly sedentary but have a set workout time of day to plan to consume most of the day’s carbohydrates around that workout.
“But it’s not essential,” he says. “The body can store glycogen for use at a later time; as long as you use the energy at some point you will be fine.”
Here are 8 Side Effects of Eating Too Many Carbs.
Don’t bash carbs; we need them to power through our workday, school day, and workouts, says National Academy of Sports Medicine certified trainer and nutrition consultant Natasha Funderburk, RN, BSN.
“When we can learn to view carbohydrates as our main energy source, it becomes easier to understand the timing of when it’s best to eat them or avoid them,” says Funderburk.
The worst time to eat carbohydrates is when you no longer need the energy. For most of us, that’s in the evening when you’re sitting on the couch. “When we carb load to sit in front of the TV, our metabolism is already powering down, and our body is going to end up storing those carbs as fat since it has no use to burn through as fuel.”
For some inspiration to get off that couch, read Ugly Side Effects of Not Working Out, According to Science.
Make a habit of limiting carbohydrates two to three hours before you go to bed, advises Morgyn Clair, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist with SprintKitchen.com. “Keep nighttime snacks to 15 grams of carbs or less,” she says.
“[Because] carb’s main role in the body is energy and the body won’t be using energy during rest, the carbs are generally stored as fat,” says Clair.
Certified Nutrition Specialist Dr. Josh Axe, DC, founder ofbroadens that advice to include eating any food 2 to 3 hours before bed to support digestion, metabolic health, and improved sleep.
“When you avoid eating carbs too close to bedtime, you’re giving your body a chance to digest and you’re also fasting overnight, which can benefit for your blood sugar and insulin sensitivity,” he says. “If possible, aim to go 12 hours overnight (between dinner and breakfast the next morning) without eating anything, including carbs.”
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You may have heard about a counter-intuitive form of carbohydrate timing called “carb backloading” for weight loss. The idea behind this trendy diet is to significantly reduce carbohydrates that you eat early in the day, at breakfast and lunch, and consume the majority of carbs later in the day (for dinner), explains nutritionist Lisa Richards, author of The Candida Diet.
“It is thought that this optimizes the body’s natural insulin sensitivity making weight loss more efficient,” she says.
And by loading up on carbs in the hours after exercising later in the day, those carbohydrates will be better absorbed by your muscles.
Also, loading up on carbs in the evening and avoiding carbs at the morning meal after a nighttime of fasting while you sleep, in theory, you force your body to turn toward stored fat for fuel during the daytime hours when you are active. It’s a similar concept to intermittent fasting and the keto diet.
No matter what type of carb timing you follow, the key is “focusing on complex carbs,” says Richards. “Reducing or eliminating refined carbohydrates from the diet is a wise decision for your overall health, not just weight loss or performance. Refined carbohydrates are inflammatory and can lead to poor gut health and candida overgrowth, among other issues.”
“If you’re prediabetic or diabetic, you’ll likely need to be more careful about your carb consumption,” says Axe. You may need to limit the number of grains and fruits you consume, and you’ll want to avoid processed carbs and added sugar, plus sugary drinks. “Another circumstance to consider cutting carbs is if you’re looking to lose weight. You might opt to try a low carb diet such as the keto diet (a high-fat diet that’s very low in carbs) which can help promote fat loss,” he says.
For many of us, our bodies never have a chance to burn the energy we’ve already stored because we never let our fuel tanks run low and we’re eating carbs throughout the day and constantly triggering insulin spikes.
“A person has spiked it again with their mid-morning snack, and then lunch, and afternoon snack; essentially a person is living a life in which every waking moment is spent in a state of elevated insulin,” says metabolism research scientist at Brigham Young University Benjamin Bikman, Ph.D., author of Why We Get Sick.
When you are inactive, your body is in a low state of physical fitness or you have high levels of body fat, it’s not a good time to consume carbohydrates.
“The body can better handle carbohydrates during and after physical activity, as well as when levels of fitness are high and body fat levels are lower, that is 15% or less for men and 20% or less for women,” says Ryan Andrews, RD, CSCS, a principal nutritionist for Precision Nutrition.
Beyond the three-hour window after exercising, you should eat mostly protein and fat and fewer carb-dense foods. “If you plan a higher carbohydrate intake at times when your body is better equipped to handle it, insulin will be under your control, and the body will function better,” Andrews says.
Rather than worry about when you should or shouldn’t consume carbohydrates, focus on choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates, stress nutritionists. Anytime can be the worst time to eat carbs if those carbs happen to be the sugary, highly processed kind. “Aim to eat unprocessed carbs that are high in fiber no matter what time of day you’re eating carbs,” says Dr. Axe. Examples of healthy carbs include vegetables, whole pieces of fruit (rather than juice), whole grains like oats or quinoa, sweet potatoes, and other potatoes, plus beans and legumes. (Related: The Surprising Side Effects of Eating Oatmeal, According to Science.) Dairy, nuts, and seeds also provide you with some carbs (choose unsweetened dairy to avoid too much sugar).