In this article, we’ll be discussing a question that often pops up in keto forums, groups, and communities: Does it make a difference how you time your carbs when you’re doing keto? When is the best time to consume your carbs?
Should you eat most of your carbs in the morning or in the afternoon and evening? Or evenly spread throughout the day?
If you’ve already been doing keto for a while now, you might be looking for ways to fine-tune your diet in a way that it helps you in your day-to-day life and in your training.
If you’re just starting out, you’re probably overwhelmed with all the new information you need to read, learn and put into practice.
And while carb timing is not essential for achieving your goals and for getting the hang of the keto diet, it might still bring a few important benefits, and actually help you with the transition.
Nevertheless, for you the most important thing for the moment is to learn how to track your macros and how to stay within them consistently – so if carb timing sounds too complicated for the moment, leave it out and come back to it in a month or two.
While a big part of carb timing is a matter of personal preference, it could actually play a role and help you achieve your goals faster. How is that?
Let’s find out.
What Could Carb Timing Be Useful For?
- Insomnia – if you’re struggling with insomnia or poor sleep on keto, that’s normal and will likely pass, but it can be very frustrating; eating your carbs closer to bedtime can be a good way to make falling asleep easier.
- Improving your workout performance – if you’re into low-intensity cardio (such as walking, slow jogging, yoga, and the like) you might not need the extra boost that carbs can give you. If, however, you’re doing weightlifting, sprinting, high-intensity running, boxing, and the like, you might benefit from having a bigger part of your carbs before or after your workout.
- Better appetite control – if you’re struggling with sticking to your calories in a deficit, it might be beneficial to have your carbs later in the day and stick to protein and fats in the morning and at lunchtime
The Basics of Carb Timing
Carb timing might be useful for experienced ketoers and newbies alike, and although not essential, it might help you to feel and perform better, and to address specific issues you might be struggling with, such as lack of strength in the gym or poor sleep.
Carb timing is an essential part of the targeted ketogenic diet (TKD), where you time your carbs around your workouts in order to maximize performance.
On TKD, you might be eating slightly more carbs than on standard keto, and you’ll be having them around your workouts in order to improve performance.
Nevertheless, you don’t actually need to do TKD in order to benefit from a flexible carb timing strategy. You can very well follow a standard keto diet and just try a few different approaches to timing your carbs in order to see what works best for you.
The type of carbs makes a difference. Getting 5g net carbs from 350g spinach (yes, spinach is that low in carbs) is not the same thing as getting 5g net carbs from candy (and that would be a tiny serving of a candy, to be precise) – and both strategies might actually be useful, but will have different outcomes.
Carbs are absorbed at a different speed, and anything with added sugar will evoke a stronger and quicker insulin response, and also will have a quicker effect on how your muscles perform.
Getting your carbs from whole, nutritious food such as low-carb veggies is an overall much better strategy than getting them from a less than ideal source, especially if health is one of your priorities, and if you want to feel full. Not because candy and sweets are evil, but because they won’t provide much in terms of nutrition besides plain calories – and carbs.
However – and there’s one important caveat – if your goal is to achieve maximum strength at the gym, something sweet might actually be more useful than a pound of spinach. It doesn’t need to be candy, really – it can also be a small piece of low carb fruit or a protein bar.
Weight Loss and Carb Timing
If your main goal is weight loss, should you eat most of your carbs after waking up, so that you use them up during the day, or should you keep your carbs for later in the day?
The common knowledge had us believe for a very long time that it’s better to consume carbs in the morning (in order, presumably, to burn them during the day, instead of storing them as fat) and keep them lower in the evening. This might not really be true, though.
If you keep your first meal for the day very low in carbs and concentrate on protein and fats, it might feel more much more satiating and will allow you to continue burning fat, which you’re already doing, as you’re fasting through the night.
The appetite suppressing effect of keto is well-known and documented (1). On top of that, if you’re smart about how you time your carbs around your schedule, you could benefit from it even more – less carbs on breakfast and lunchtime could allow you to feel less hungry throughout the day. Not everyone reacts in the same way, but it’s worth giving it a try.
It’s not great for fat loss, however, especially if you combine these with carbs; due to the elevated insulin and cortisol levels, they’re susceptible to being stored away rather than used straight away.
Carb Timing for Combating Insomnia and Sleep Problems
If you’re struggling with falling and staying asleep since you started keto, you’re not alone. In fact, that’s a common side effect of the keto diet – it will most likely improve with time, and at some point, it will resolve completely.
However, if you’re not getting enough sleep, this can be detrimental to your concentration, motivation, and discipline, and we all know how important these are when you start working towards a new goal.
There’s a simple solution to that – have the bigger part of your carbs in the evening. For example, if your carb limit is 25 g net carbs daily, have 15 of them in the evening with dinner, and spread out the other 10 throughout the day.
To do this, you need to keep your breakfast (if you’re having one) and lunch low in carbs by concentrating more on protein and fat.
It’s not guaranteed that it’s the only thing you need in order to enjoy better sleep, but many people find that it helps them. For more ideas on how to improve sleep quality on keto, check out our article How to Improve Sleep Quality and Beat Insomnia on Keto Diet.
Carb Timing for Improving Your Athletic Performance / Targeted Ketogenic Diet
If you wish to utilize carbs to achieve better athletic performance, you need to have the bigger part of your carbs around your workout. This is essentially the same thing as the Targeted Ketogenic Diet.
Carb Timing for Strength & Explosiveness
If you’re into weightlifting (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting or bodybuilding), or another sport where you need strength and explosive force, carb timing can be a great way to achieve it.
If your goal is to have maximum strength, and to be able to push through a progressively heavier load, improving your numbers as often as possible, timing your carbs around your workouts, and even eating a small amount of carbs right before or even during your workout might prove to be hugely beneficial.
For optimal performance, you might actually benefit from carbs that absorb quickly, and even from a small amount of dextrose or sugar taken before or during your workout.
This shouldn’t be an excuse to stuff your face with carbs, however – the required amounts are minimal, in the range of 10-25 g net carbs. The good news is that they’ll be used straight away and you won’t store them and are very unlikely to be kicked out of ketosis. If you’re doing strenuous exercise, your carb limit is likely to be somewhat higher than 25 g net carbs daily.
Carb Timing for Endurance
Once you’re fat adapted, you won’t need carbs in order to keep going – in fact, that’s one of keto’s amazing benefits, it gives you access to thousands and thousands of calories, conveniently stored in the form of body fat and ready to be used.
We have discussed that in detail in our article on endurance sports.
If you’re not yet fat adapted, some carbs distributed throughout your training might be beneficial. Again, if you’re participating in events that last for more than 1-2 hours, your carb limit will likely be higher on that day, so you might adapt a slightly more liberal approach and have 20-30 g carbs during your training, and another 10-20 g with your other meals.
Carb Timing for General Performance
Even on keto, your glycogen stores in the muscles aren’t completely empty – your body is still using them, and they fuel a part of your workouts (typically the hardest part, such as heavy lifting).
After training, your body is much more likely to synthesize glycogen out of the carbs you’re having, compared to any other time (4). Partially refilling your glycogen stores after your workout yields very good results in terms of general performance.
Carb Timing: How to Do It
Ok, so you want to try timing your carbs. How do you do it, though?
Essentially, timing your carbs revolves around having a meal or two that is very low in carbs – such as 2-3 to 5 g net carbs or so – and redistributing your remaining carbs according to your goals (around your workout or later in the day).
Some ideas for meals or snacks that are very low in carbs:
- Meat, poultry, fish – practically zero carb
- Combine the above with a side of low-carb vegetables, such as 100-200 g spinach (1.4 – 2.8 g net carbs), a cup of lettuce (0.5 g net carbs), 100 g peeled cucumber (1.5 g net carbs), half an avocado (1.8 g net carbs), etc.
- Eggs in any form, such as boiled, poached, fried eggs
- Egg omelette or frittata with ham and spinach
- Hard cheese – can be combined with any of the above
- Olives – a 100 g serving comes at 0.5 g net carbs
Regarding the meal that is higher in carbs, you can use all of the above but have a more generous serving of vegetables, or eat vegetables that are slightly higher in carbs, such as cauliflower, peppers, cabbage, kale, zucchini, bok choy, broccoli or even carrots. You can check our complete keto food list here for more ideas of what to eat.
You could also have a big salad with cherry tomatoes and nuts, and combine it with a protein source of your choice, or just have cherry tomatoes as a side or as a keto snack.
Alternatively, you could enjoy a serving of berries or some (unsweetened) Greek yogurt.
A Day of Carb Timing
Here’s what a day of carb timing could look like if you decide to have your carbs in the evening:
Breakfast: Eggs + ½ or ¼ avocado
Lunch: Protein of choice + a side of spinach
Dinner: A big salad + protein of choice + a serving of berries/Greek yogurt (if needed)
Alternatively, if you decide to time your carbs around your training, it would depend on the time of the day when you’re working out.
For example, if it’s in the morning, you could have some berries with your breakfast, or Greek yogurt (or both); if it’s at midday, you could swap the dinner from the above example with lunch. Of course, plenty of options exist and you can tailor them to your specific needs and preferences.
So, what’s the verdict? Do you need to time your carbs around your schedule in order to be successful with your diet?
Not necessarily. You can do very well on keto without worrying about carb timing or carb refeed at all, if you just stick to your carb limit consistently, day after day. However, it can be a very useful strategy for achieving specific goals.
Essentially, it’s just another tool, in the same way, your diet is a tool (although carb timing has a much more specific function). If you’re struggling with falling or staying asleep, or if your workouts have taken a hit since you have started keto, carb timing can be an excellent strategy to tackle these issues. Additionally, having most of your carbs in the afternoon or in the evening could be beneficial for controlling your appetite, and therefore for weight loss. All you need is to reschedule your meal plan to adjust the carbs amount in each meal.
What’s your experience with carb timing? Have you tried it, and for what reason? Did it make a difference for you?
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