Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Lorenz Mac
Carb backloading is a relatively new diet regimen that has gained the attention of the masses due to its enticing benefits.
Unlike many diets that restricts you from junk food, carb backloading allows you to eat cake, donuts and cheeseburgers while still losing weight and gaining muscle.
The creator, John Kiefer idealizes that this style of dieting utilizes carbohydrates effectively by holding off any carb consumption until dinner time, where you are then encouraged to eat whatever you desire.
So is carb backloading the ultimate be all and end all diet or just another fad diet?
In this article we’ll talk about:
It’s important to understand how carbohydrates are processed in your body before understanding how carb backloading works.
Anytime you eat carbohydrates, they’re broken down into glucose in your blood. This raises your blood sugar levels which then signals the pancreas to release insulin to rebalance blood sugar levels.
Insulin does this by depositing the carbohydrates into your muscles or fat cells.
The more active you are, the less body weight and overall healthier physique you have, the chances of the carbs going into your muscles are higher. You are considered to have good insulin sensitivity.
Conversely, the more sedentary and higher body fat percentage you have, the higher your chances are of carbohydrates being stored as fat rather than muscle. This is considered being insulin resistant.
Carb backloading takes advantage of this cycle and focuses on consuming all of your carbohydrates when your body is most insulin sensitive, after strenuous exercise like weight lifting.
The basis of the diet requires you to eat little to no carbs for breakfast and lunch with the bulk of your calories coming from fats and protein.
Then after your workout (preferably in the evening), you increase your carb intake for your post-workout meal and extends throughout the rest of your night.
John Kiefer — the creator of carb backloading — believes this way of eating helps utilize our body’s most insulin sensitive times of day and recommends allocating your carbohydrates accordingly[*].
Additionally, there is evidence that eating carbs immediately following a workout will improve the rate at which carbs are turned into muscle rather than fat[*].
Research shows that insulin sensitivity peaks in the morning, signaling to your body to store glucose both into fat and muscles[*].
Carb backloading takes note of this and recommends not eating any carbs when your body is most susceptible to storing carbs as fat (during the day).
Instead, you would eat the majority of your carbs when your body can turn the glucose into muscles, in the evening after a workout. By avoiding carbs as much as possible during the day, fat gain through “novo lipogenesis” or the creation of new fat tissues through carbohydrates, is mitigated.
Studies have proven that insulin helps regulate lipolysis meaning, it’s an important hormone to help burn fat[*].
Essentially you are eating carbs when your body is most likely to store them as glycogen in the muscles rather than stored as fat.
This diet focuses heavily on proper hormonal function timing. When you’re sleeping, your body runs on a fat burning mode. At this time, your body begins burning fat and releasing growth hormone[*].
Upon waking, the goal of carb backloading is to stay in this fat-burning state. This can be achieved by consuming only fats and proteins throughout the day.
Being in this fat-burning mode, also called “ketosis” is one of the pillars to the carb backloading protocol.
Periods of ketosis have shown to control hunger and improve fat oxidative metabolism[*].
For breakfast, stick to a low carb, high fat meal such as a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast casserole or even skip breakfast entirely.
Skipping breakfast, also called intermittent fasting has several benefits that extend past the carb backloading diet regimen. It can help deplete your body’s glycogen stores during the day. Doing so helps your body become insulin sensitive which helps deposit carbohydrates directly into your muscles or as energy rather than stored as fat.
For lunch, continue to consume meals consisting of mostly fats and protein, with the bulk of your calories coming from healthy fats. Remember to keep carbohydrates low by eating a low carbohydrate meal like salmon with pesto cauliflower rice.
Most of your calories from carbohydrates will come after your workout.
The “post-workout” principle is important because this is when your body is most likely to store glycogen into the muscles and not into your fat cells.
In fact, Kiefer recommends rewarding yourself with tasty meals that other diets would consider unhealthy.
“But I Thought Carbs at Night Were Bad For You?”
We have been taught to believe that eating heavy carb-laden meals at night will ultimately lead to a fatter body composition.
Many nutritionists to this day recommend you eat the majority of your carbohydrates during the day when your insulin sensitivity is highest then eventually decreasing total caloric intake in the afternoon and at night.
The age old saying, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper” has been hammered into our nutritional ideologies for years.
But the carb backloading protocol proposes the complete opposite.
The problem with the carbs in the morning approach is that your body’s stress hormone, cortisol steadily increases at night and peaks at around seven am. This counteracts insulin and signals fat gain when carbohydrates are consumed in the morning.
It’s suggested that eating carbs in the morning can result in more efficient glucose uptake into your muscles via increased insulin sensitivity, but at the same time deposits more glucose into fat tissues[*].
By backloading your carbs — eating them at night after a workout — you negate the fat-gaining effects of cortisol.
Like most other diets, carb backloading comes with several benefits including:
- Reduced Cravings. The diet allows you to be less restrictive (at night) so it’s okay to have junk food every so often, as long as you have stayed low carb for most of the day. Recent studies show that giving into your cravings can help you achieve your weight loss goals faster.
- Less Stored Fat. The whole idea behind the diet is to utilize hormonal function. By staying in nutritional ketosis throughout the day, you’re encouraging your body to burn off excess fat.
- Better Sleep. Carb consumption at night time helps produce more tryptophan. Insulin allows tryptophan into the brain and that tryptophan allows the process of converting serotonin into melatonin which allows you to sleep.
By avoiding carbs for most of the day, you are maintaining low blood sugar levels. This means you won’t have any major insulin releases and your body will burn fat through ketosis throughout the majority of the day.
There are two main studies frequently cited throughout John Kiefer’s book, “Carb Backloading”.
One study compared the effects of eating 70% of daily calories in the morning versus the evening to assess fat loss. 10 women were placed on a six week weight loss diet.
The results showed that the women who ate the bulk of their calories in the evening lost more fat and lost less muscle than those who ate in the morning by half a pound[*].
This study was conducted in a “metabolic ward” which means the food the subjects ate throughout the test was properly controlled and accurate.
Another study published in 2011 placed 70 Israeli police officers on a six month diet regimen with one group eating carbohydrates evenly throughout the day while the other group ate the bulk of their carbs at dinner time.
The researchers found that the group who ate the majority of carbohydrates in the evening experienced less hunger, lost 4.4 more pounds and experienced a greater body mass index (BMI) by .83 compared to the group who ate carbs throughout the day[*].
Reduced inflammation, glucose control and improved blood lipids were also seen in the subjects who ate the majority of carbs at night.
The carb backloading diet can be boiled down to three steps according to John Kiefer.
#1: Limit Your Carb Intake to 30 Grams Per Day for 10 Days
The first phase requires you to restrict your carbohydrates as much as possible.
Kiefer recommends eating one gram of protein per pound of body weight daily and consume large amounts of fat. Eggs, salmon, avocados and bacon are recommended.
Saturated fats should not be a concern. The Annals of Internal Medicine have concluded that low-carb diets with moderate to high amounts of saturated fats improves the risk factors of heart disease and promotes cardiovascular health[*].
You can expect to feel lethargic for the first few days on the carb backloading diet, similar to the keto flu.
#2 Eat Large Amounts of Carbs on the 10th Day
On the 10th day, Kiefer recommends eating plenty of carbs and protein immediately after your evening workout. The theory is your body is extremely depleted of carbohydrates by the 10th day that there’s no possible way for carbs to be stored as fat.
He even goes so far as to recommend eating a cheeseburger with french fries, followed by a protein shake and cookies afterwards.
On days you train you can repeat the process of eating large amounts of carbs after your afternoon or evening training session.
On days you don’t train, eat very low carb similar to the first 10 days of the carb backloading program.
One of the biggest gripes about the ketogenic diet is gaining muscle mass with a lack of carbohydrates.
With ketosis, you want to be sure that you’re keeping your blood ketones elevated by restricting carb intake. However people that train with heavy weights find they need carbohydrates to maintain strength during their workouts.
The problem is, you don’t want your carbohydrates too high because then you’re kicking yourself out of the ketogenic state.
When you are in ketosis, your body is extremely glycogen sparing.
This means your body doesn’t normally blaze through all the carbohydrates in the body that it normally does.
We hold about 450 – 500 grams of carbohydrate in our muscles and liver. This means that normally you have to burn through 450 grams of carbs to drain them on a traditional diet.
But when you’re in ketosis, your body is utilizing ketones which means it’s sparing a lot of that glycogen.
So whereas a normal workout might burn 250 grams of carbs, if you’re in ketosis that same workout might only burn 50-60 carbs because your body is predominantly using ketones.
Therefore you can get by with a lot less carbohydrate in your keto backloading strategy than if you were traditionally carb backloading.
A carb backloading principle in conjunction with ketosis, if you’re training in the evening could be highly effective so long as you do not exceed those 50 grams of carbs at the very upper limit.
This is because you still want to have the positive effects of low insulin throughout the course of the day.
For example, if you train in the morning then you have your post workout meal containing 40 – 50 grams of carbs, then you’re kicking yourself out of ketosis for a short amount of time.
It will then take time for your body’s insulin levels to come back down and you’re eliminating the potential fat burning effects throughout the course of the day.
But if you train in the evening and restrict your carb intake until after your workout, you’re in a fat-burning state throughout the whole day then consuming your carbs post workout at night will give you the benefits of ketosis during the day while still receiving muscle mass benefits.
It might kick you out of ketosis for a few minutes, but at least it won’t slow down fat loss throughout the course of the day.
It’s important to allocate most of your carbs in the evening as much as possible.
Keep in mind, this means your carbs throughout the course of the day should be extremely minimalized.
You should have an exceptionally low carb breakfast even low veggie content, with lunch having just a couple carbs and consume the bulk of your carbs in the evening.
The upper limit of carbohydrate that you should be consuming when it comes to the keto carb backloading strategy is about 50 grams.
Here is a sample of a carb backloading meal plan where you are eating low carb until after your five PM workout:
- Breakfast – Turkey sausage frittata
- Lunch – Lemon balsamic chicken
- Dinner – 12 oz grass fed steak with one cup of white rice
- Dessert – Protein shake
Carb Backloading Pairs Well With the Ketogenic Diet
The principles of carb backloading have a lot of commonalities with the low carb, high fat ketogenic diet.
While the science behind the carb backloading principles are only limited to two significant studies, incorporating it into a ketogenic diet is deemed superior in more ways than one.
If you have been struggling with gaining muscle on the ketogenic diet, following our guidelines in using carb backloading principles can potentially enhance muscle mass and strength.
Carb backloading can pair well with the ketogenic diet if you are looking to increase athletic performance or gain muscle. This can be done through a targeted or cyclic ketogenic diet regimen.
Otherwise, a standard ketogenic diet wouldn’t be optimal with carb backloading principles because consuming too many carbs will kick you out of ketosis.
The longer you stay on the diet, the easier it becomes and the better your results.
And while the diet purports to increase muscle mass and drop body fat while still enjoying junk food, you must remember to follow the strict low carb guidelines during the day followed by a carb-laden meal after your evening workout to start seeing real results.