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What is carb back-loading? Q&A

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What is carb back-loading?

In a nutshell, you avoid eating carbs throughout the day, eating only protein and fat. You save all your carbohydrates for after your workout, which should take place in the late afternoon or early evening.

But I thought carbs were bad for you?

Not at all. There are many cases of ‘carb-phobia’ going around right now, but it’s pretty much unwarranted. No one type of food in isolation – with the exception of man-made trans fats – is bad for you, and you shouldn’t think of foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Your diet as a whole can be unhealthy, or it can be healthy and supportive of your goals. It’s not advisable to cut out any one food group or an entire macronutrient, such as carbohydrate, from your nutrition regime. Balance is the key.

How does it work?

The idea behind carb back-loading is that eating your carbs in the evening after training has the effect of manipulating certain hormones, primarily insulin, which can help with fat loss. If you adopt this approach, you have to avoid carbohydrates at breakfast and throughout the day (except for vegetables). The theory is that this helps to burn more fat than eating more frequent, carbohydrate-based meals.

However, the specific manipulation of hormones is a high level of management that’s unnecessary for the majority of people who train. For most gym-goers, it’s best to focus on the big picture of hitting your macronutrient (fat, protein and carbohydrates) targets and let the hormones take care of themselves.

With all the advice I’ve heard, I haven’t eaten a carb after 7pm for years. What’s changed?

The myth that carbs should be avoided at night because they are more fattening when eaten later in the day has been strangely persistent. Most experts agree that the timing of your nutrient intake is far less important than your total daily intake. With regards to body composition, neither the type nor timing of when you eat your carbohydrates really matters; ensuring you hit your total macronutrient targets while consuming sufficient fibre and eating a range of nutrient-dense foods is the most important aim for body composition. 

When you eat your carbohydrates should be dictated by personal preference, tolerance, schedule and goals. You can eat them in one, three or nine meals a day as long as your total intake is the same at the end of the day.

If I’m back-loading, what kind of carbs can I eat?

Any carbohydrates are allowed, from nutrient-dense foods such as sweet potato, brown rice and fruit to more refined, sugary foods such as ice cream, biscuits and cakes. Of course, if cake is your primary source of carbs your fat loss efforts won’t be that successful. Probably.

How many carbs should I eat?

For the first nine days you are limited to 30g a day. This low-carb period improves your body’s insulin response, so you’re primed to deal with carbs without dramatic blood sugar spikes. Then, on the tenth day, you can eat as much carbohydrate as you like. After that you can continue to eat carbs after your evening training sessions, according to your goals.

Won’t all those carbs in such a short space of time make me fat?

It might seem as if you’re eating a lot of carbohydrates, but remember you’re not having any at breakfast, lunch or any point in the day. As long as you don’t go carb-crazy, you should still be in a fat-burning calorie deficit. 

So what can I eat between waking up and training?

Well, your diet is pretty limited – to just vegetables, protein and fats. So lots of meat, fish, green veg, healthy oils, nuts and seeds. That should keep the hunger monsters away.

Filling station

Want carb guidance? Try these heathy options

Sweet potato contains plenty of cholesterol-lowering betacarotene.

Porridge oats are a good source of carbs as well as muscle-building protein.

Pizza delivers a lot of carbs – and a Florentine adds protein-packed egg and antioxidant-filled spinach.

Scott Baptie is a physique and sports nutritionist, online personal trainer and director of FoodForFitness.co.uk (opens in new tab)

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