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Intermittent Carbing

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Why Saving Your Carbs for Later can Boost Your Productivity (and Decrease Your Waistline)

Food clock on plate and wood table for Intermittent Carbing or Intermittent Fasting

What the Heck is Intermittent Carbing?

Another name for this eating pattern is Carbohydrate Backloading. I'm not as keen on that name, since it sounds too much like Carbohydrate Loading which involves people eating buckets of pasta, usually prior to a marathon or other endurance race.

Some proponents of Carb Backloading actively encourage large amounts of carbs at night as being OK as long as you time it right, but that's not what we're talking about here.

Intermittent Carbing is very similar to Intermittent Fasting, with a twist.

Instead of limiting food to specific times per day, Intermittent Carbing only limits carbohydrates to certain times of the day.

More specifically: save your carbs for the evening meal.


Why Carbs at Night?

Some of my clients ask me this because they've heard the reverse: eat carbs early in the day to give the body a chance to burn them off during the day with activity.

For most people, though, this isn't the case, mainly because of the operating phrase of that last sentence: with activity - more specifically, physical activity, as in a workout or physically active job that involves lots of lifting, climbing, or running. If your job mainly involves sitting at a desk or light walking around, that activity is not high enough to need carbohydrates.

Our insulin sensitivity is highest in the morning (which is a good thing) but if we don't physically move our bodies, most of the carbs we eat will go towards refilling our glycogen and fat stores, which encourages weight gain - which can be a good or a bad thing depending on what your goals are.

See Understanding Ketosis for a full break down of this process.

Increased Satiety with Carbs at Night

Consuming carbs at night reduces hunger the next day, mainly through a hormone called Leptin. Leptin is called a satiety or fullness hormone, and is released in response to eating food. Turns out leptin secretion is higher in response to evening carbs (4 pm to 1 am) and is not secreted as much earlier in the day (8 am to 4 pm).

Carb timing and thermogenesis

Thermogenesis of Carbs at Night

Our muscles and fat cells are most insulin sensitive in the morning, and are least sensitive to insulin in the evening.

Lower sensitivity means that more carbs are “wasted” in the form of heat production. Night time carb consumption causes thermogenesis: our bodies produce more heat, which burns more calories.

It actually works in real, relevant fat loss too. Several studies have shown that people on a weight loss plan who eat carbs mainly at night lose more body fat as well as reduce inflammation and improve hormone levels better than those that eat carbs earlier in the day (R, R, R)

Worried about muscle gain? Insulin does play a role in muscle gain so it’s understandable to worry about this eating pattern and how it may affect muscle building. There’s good news: if you work out in the evening (like right after work which is a good time for a workout habit anyway) the workout restores the insulin sensitivity of muscles, but not the fat cells. So the carbs you eat will get shuttled into the hungry muscles that need it for refueling, and skip over the fat cells.

Other Benefits of Carbs at Night

The benefits that you experience with Intermittent Carbing are the same mental and health benefits that any person in ketosis gets (found in detail here) but the specific benefits are:

1. Consistency. Compared to carb cycling, Intermittent Carbing is easier to follow because it follows the same pattern every day. From a habit building perspective, humans do best with habits that are daily, or as close to daily as possible. No need to check a calendar or your training schedule, or forgetting and accidentally consuming carbs when you’re supposed to have a keto day. Simpler habits are easier to start and maintain.

2. Improved Sleep. Carbs + sitting still = sleepy brain. Because of the carb intake at the evening meal, Insulin levels rise, which helps to push down the stimulating Cortisol and Norepinephrine, as well as release Serotonin and Dopamine which together have calming and happiness inducing properties. Having raised Insulin and blood sugar levels before bed supports a good night’s sleep. If you regularly experience too-early morning wake ups, double check your evening meal carb intake and timing. Dinner should be 2-4 hours before bed for those experiencing early waking up issues.

Why carbs make us sleepy, blood sugar insulin and fatigue

These are the same benefits seen with daily Intermittent Fasting (16:8 or similar), but Intermittent Carbing lets you eat food during the “fasting” window.

Really, these two eating patterns can be paired together seamlessly, and are helpful maintaining Intermittent Fasting long term.

If you wake up and aren't hungry, don't eat. Stay hydrated, maybe some coffee or tea with a bit of heavy whipping cream or other keto friendly creamer, and go through the day until you get into your preferred fasting time.

But if you wake up and are hungry, have a protein rich, low carb breakfast. You'll still be in ketosis, with all of the attending health and mental benefits, but a happy stomach, and bonus mental benefits from the protein.

How low is low carb?

Everyone has a different threshold for carbs, so experiment to see what feels best for you. A starting point to try would be 10 grams or less for a breakfast, but you may feel a benefit from more or less.

An Example Schedule:

7-9 am - Eat a low carb breakfast (preferably high in protein).

Examples: Eggs, uncured or fresh breakfast meats, cheese, vegetables, low sugar greek yogurt, low sugar berries, keto friendly breads-tortillas-cereals, ultrafiltered milk like Fairlife or Chobani or Mootopia, low sugar nut milks, nuts and nut butters, butter, unsweetened cream or natural low sugar creamers to go in coffee and tea.

11a-1 pm - Lower carb lunch, similar to breakfast food categories.

Examples: Low carb portions of leftovers from dinner, meat and vegetable based soups (bonus points for including bone broth), chef salad with meats and eggs and cheese or Caesar salad with chicken or a steak and blue cheese wedge salad, or any cooked combination of meats and vegetables and anything else from the breakfast list. You could incorporate some medium sugar fruit or beans if you plan to have an intense workout later, but you can skip them here if you are more interested in fat burning than performance.

3-6 pm - Almost everyone is hungry at this time of the day!

Early bird schedules allow for a mid afternoon workout and can sit down to an early meal at this time. Later work schedules benefit from a post-work, pre-workout snack incorporating some easy to digest protein and carbs like fruit or grains before a workout.

If you aren't working out after work, DO still snack if you're hungry but stick with protein and healthy fats like nuts, chicharrones, jerky, protein bars/drinks.

My favorite hack is to keep these items at your work desk or in your car or bag to snack on BEFORE you get home where there are more bingeable options like chips and sweets.

6-9 pm - A balanced dinner, including equal amounts of a protein, nonstarchy vegetable, and a whole grains/beans/potatoes/corn. Night time is a good time for fruit if you haven't had any yet.

Try to aim to eat dinner 3-4 hours before bed time to allow for full digestion before sleeping. However, it's normal to be hungry after 4-5 hours, so people staying up later should aim for a later dinner which helps to limit late night snacking.

A note for those aiming for fat loss and/or muscle gain - all the rules still apply.

When it comes to body composition, WHAT we eat and HOW MUCH we eat still matter! Skipping carbs in the morning doesn't open the gate for a cookie binge in the evening.

Any fat loss seen using this pattern is in the context of a lower calorie diet. Always focus on increasing protein and nonstarchy vegetables which naturally crowd out the higher calorie foods and encourage fullness, which leads to fat loss.

Any muscle gain seen using this pattern is in people doing the afternoon workouts most days out of the week. Our bodies will not gain an ounce of muscle that isn't absolutely necessary, so we have to keep pushing it further in our workouts to see more muscle gain.

A note for Morning People - this may or may not work for you.

Alas, there is no such thing as a magic bullet that will solve all of everyone’s problems, and individuals can have unique needs.

Intermittent Carbing works really well for the majority of the population: that is, the group that wakes up around 6-8 am, works best from 9 to 5, and gets tired around 10 pm-12 am. Even if it's earlier or later, the best time for an intense workout for this group falls in the afternoon or evening, usually right after work. Carbs are consumed after the workout as part of a balanced dinner, which drives muscle gain while minimizing fat gain, and encourages a good night's sleep.

Morning people, the group that wakes up naturally in the 3-5 am range, may benefit from a different schedule altogether, especially anyone doing serious morning workouts.

If you get up early in the day and are going for long (over 45 minute) runs or long bouts of intense workouts in the morning, or are doing two-a-day workouts, please eat some carbs right after that morning workout if not before. You’ll need them!


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