The myth that no carbohydrates should be eaten after 6pm still persists courageously. But what is this advice all about? How can carbohydrates actually be used smartly? Carb timing, the conscious use of carbohydrates at the right time, is a very smart tool in a well-managed diet and can support various physical and health goals. However, the term is often misunderstood, which is why the topic of carb timing is explained in more detail here.
Carb Timing - what is it & what can it do for your nutrition?
The term carb timing says it all: it is about timing carbohydrates sensibly, i.e., eating them at the right time. The term nutrient timing generally refers to the conscious use of the various nutrients at the right time. More on this below in the text. Carb Timing and Nutrient Timing helps to keep blood sugar stable and reduce energy lows and cravings. In addition, the use of carbohydrates at the right time, for example after weight training, promotes muscle building to the maximum. Carb timing can also optimize sleep because the right carbohydrates in the evening promote the release of relaxation and sleep hormones and reduce blood sugar lows at night.
Physiological rationale for Carb Timing and Nutrient Timing
There are always critics who are of the opinion that Carb Timing and Nutrient Timing make absolutely no sense because from their point of view only the macronutrients and the calorie balance count. You often hear phrases like "Calories don't know what time it is!". In fact, calories do not know, but our complex hormonal system differentiates very precisely under which circumstances the respective calories or macronutrients arrive in the intestine and in the bloodstream. This can be explained in simple physiological terms:
Simply put, our hormonal and nervous system is a control and monitoring system. The nervous system receives stimuli that cause the brain to transmit signals to the organism that lead to various reactions.
In the process, hormones and neurotransmitters act as signals to ensure the flow of information. The various hormones are interconnected in an extremely complex system and interact with each other in various ways, so that a small change at one central point can affect all the others. Which information is ultimately passed on to the body depends on a wide variety of environmental influences and hormonal processes already taking place internally.
Whether we exercise, whether we have slept well and on time, whether we have a lot of body fat or a lot of muscle, whether we feel stressed and thus release a lot of stress hormones, whether we eat fast or slow sugar, whether our intestines are healthy and whether we have first stabilised our blood sugar with other nutrients and also our inflammation levels influence what our body does with the carbohydrates.
It can use them after exercise to fill and expand the emptied muscle stores, it can use them as direct energy when consumption is high, but it can rapidly convert them into fats in the liver when there is a short-term excess and store them as body fat.
Of course, in the end, the total balance of calories and carb intake (the total carbohydrates consumed) also plays a role. It's all about what and how and how much.
When to eat carbohydrates - Carb Timing
For most people, carbohydrates should not be eaten for breakfast. It is better to stabilise blood sugar with high-quality protein, good fats, vitamins, and fibre in the form of vegetables or berries in the first meal of the day.
This sets the right hormone signals for the day, which ensure good focus and prevent energy lows.
Throughout the day, it all depends on your general lifestyle and the current state of your body. A few simple rules of thumb for individual carb intake are as follows:
The more body fat around the middle of the body (belly and hips), the fewer carbohydrates should be eaten in general.
The more muscle mass and the less body fat you have and the more you do intensive exercise, the more carbohydrates can also be eaten as snacks, for lunch and for dinner.
After intensive weight training, carbohydrates, e.g., porridge, banana, rice cakes, etc., should be eaten within an hour if there is little body fat, to replenish muscle stores and stimulate growth hormones for muscle building.
Those who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, even if they have more body fat around their midsection, should eat complex carbohydrates such as quinoa, buckwheat, gluten-free porridge or potatoes at least 2h before sleeping in the evening to promote sleep and growth hormones at night.
In general, if the goal is to build muscle and the starting point is low body fat, carbohydrates should be eaten at every meal except breakfast.
People who generally do little exercise and sit around a lot (e.g., in the home office) should eat fewer carbohydrates - preferably only in the afternoon and evening. Because with little exercise, carbohydrates are usually converted directly into body fat and stored, and they make you tired.
What constitutes a timing diet?
Carb Timing and Nutrient Timing has a huge impact on the circumstances under which you pursue physical and health goals. By using carbohydrates at the right time and stabilising blood sugar, energy lows and cravings can be avoided, ultimately resulting in fewer total calories being eaten and therefore the excessive carb intake in the form of sugar. This is because sugar is always a quick fix in case of uncontrolled eating. This way, the diet can be established in the long term and, after a hard time of discipline, is not thrown over at the next weak moment and crowned with a yo-yo effect.
So if you want to maintain a conscious diet in the long term that keeps your body in balance and makes you look slim and defined or even muscular in the long term and, above all, promotes your health, you should look into the topic of carb timing.
Eating low-carb in the evening? Getting carb timing right
As mentioned above, the myth of "no carbs after 6pm" makes little sense! Rather, carb timing should be such that no carbs are eaten in the morning, and they may support sleep in the evening. So in the evening, only those who have a good night's sleep should eat low-carb. Those who have a lot of body fat around the middle of the body, do little exercise and have little muscle should reduce their personal carb intake sharply for a few weeks anyway and eat low-carb. Correct carb timing is based on the above-mentioned circumstances and thus also leads to success.
Nutrient Timing & Carb Timing in Comparison
Nutrient timing means, as already described, that the various nutrients are consciously used at the right time. In a narrower sense, the term can refer to the macronutrients carbohydrates, protein and fat, but in a broader sense it can also refer to the micronutrients. Because there, too, it plays a role for the body when what is taken in. If you only pay attention to carb timing, you automatically influence the entire nutrient timing. However, if you want to plan both, then the following applies: Protein always belongs with every main meal and preferably also with snacks, whether low-carb or high carb. If carbohydrates are eaten, fewer fats are eaten with the respective meal and vice versa. This is important because otherwise the calorie count is quickly exceeded. In addition, no fat should be eaten after strength training and only protein and, if necessary, carbohydrates. Nutrient timing also plays an important role, but carb timing actually has the greatest influence on hormone signalling.
Is meal timing always useful? A conclusion
The term can be understood as having fixed times for each meal. This does not make sense depending on the individual daily routine, as it is unrealistic for many people. However, it is important to have fixed and regular main meals and snacks because this also has a positive effect on stable blood sugar. Timing of meals should be considered, but in a different way: It is important to eat breakfast within one hour of getting up, so that the desired blood sugar stabilising effect takes place; on the other hand, stress hormones begin to increase blood sugar again.
Something should be eaten about every three hours, which is why a small snack between the main meals is good. When carb timing, it is important that the carbohydrates are eaten immediately after training and that you do not wait longer than one hour.