If you’re only eating a limited amount of carbs on keto, is there any benefit to eating all of them in one sitting versus spreading them out over the course of your day?
Many people believe you should eat all your carbs in the morning and work them off as your day progresses, but that’s never been scientifically proven to help you lose weight or build muscle.
What about fasting pre-workout and then carb-loading afterwards?
This popular route has been around in bodybuilding and endurance athlete circles forever, but can it work on a more practical, everyday level for losing weight?
Determining when the best time to eat carbs on keto is just as personalized as figuring out your daily net carbs. It comes down to your specific goals for your body and your activity level.
So to give you a well-rounded starting point, today we’ll be covering everything you need to know about when to eat carbs on keto, including:
Let’s talk about why you even need carbs in the first place.
Carbs provide energy, right?
But when you enter ketosis, your body will start using ketones instead of glucose as its main source of fuel to power through your workouts and work meetings.
Ketones are a much more stable energy source for your body and a ketogenic diet has been shown to improve endurance in athletes who train hard and need all the energy they can get[*].
So why do you even need carbs?
The main reason is fiber.
Your Body Craves and Needs Fiber
Most of the delicious food held in high regard on a keto diet — i.e., butter, cheese, animal meat, coconut oil, etc. — lacks any dietary fiber.
Fiber is a type of carb that your body doesn’t fully digest. It mainly comes from plant sources like veggies, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds.
Unfortunately, most of the fiber in the typical Western diet comes from refined carbs like bread and pasta, which are off-limits on keto.
Women need 25 grams of fiber per day, and men need 38 grams per day, according to the Institute of Medicine[*].
Yet the average American only consumes around 16 grams of fiber per day (18 and 15 grams per day for males and females, respectively[*]).
It’s not the most glamorous job, but fiber is amazing for your body because it:
- Promotes a feeling of fullness so you consume fewer calories during your meal or snacks. Soluble fiber turns into a gel-like consistency inside your body, which helps slow digestion. This long-lasting satiety makes it easier to go longer between meals without feeling ravenous.
- Helps move your digestion along and relieves symptoms of IBS. Constipation is usually caused by a lack of insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber moves along your digestive tract, grabs water from your intestines to add weight to your waste material, and helps it ease its way through your system to eventually result in a poop emoji.
- Keeps your GI healthy. Adding more fiber to your diet reduces your risks of developing hemorrhoids, acid reflux, gallstones and kidney stones[*].
- Lowers your blood sugar and reduces the risks of developing type 2 diabetes. Eating fiber with your meals and snacks slows down the rate your body absorbs the sugars from your foods. Fewer spikes means less insulin resistance[*].
- Decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Your risks of having high blood pressure, chronic inflammation or a heart attack decrease the more dietary fiber is in your diet[*].
- Lessen your risk of having a stroke. Scientists discovered that for every 7g of fiber you add to your daily menu reduces your stroke risk by 7%[*].
So fiber’s a rock star to your body and generally can’t do anything wrong.
But how are you supposed to get fiber when you’re keto?
Doesn’t fiber usually come from high-carb foods like oatmeal, bread and prepackaged bars full of sugar?
Yes and no.
Fiber is subtracted from your total daily carbs since your body cannot absorb or process it.
This lessens the effect of high-carb foods so they’re not a total shock to your system.
For example, a cup of broccoli may have around six total carbs. But half of those carbs may come strictly from fiber.
The net carb count is the difference between the total carbs and the fiber count.
So that broccoli carb impact goes from six grams to just three carbs when you subtract the fiber.
Most people experience all the benefits of a ketogenic diet (i.e., fat loss, greater energy, more focus, less hunger, etc.) by simply limiting their net carbs to 20–50g per day.
This carb spread varies widely depending on if you want to lose excess body fat, maintain your current weight or build muscle.
Once you do some soul-searching to find your answer, you’ll need to determine your ideal carb intake range to accomplish your goal.
This act will then set you up perfectly so you’ll be able to time your carb intake with your activity levels and optimize your carbs like a pro.
Depending on your activity levels and body goals, you may need to skip the pre- and post-workout carbs.
While studies have always shown that skipping carbs before a workout leads to dire consequences like not having enough energy to make it through your run, remember that most of these trials have not been done on keto-adapted participants yet.
Sure, limiting your body’s usual source of energy will result in sluggish workouts. But if you’re in ketosis and you’ve replaced that sugary energy source with fat and ketones, you may be a step ahead of the yogis in your bikram class.
There are three main types of ketogenic diets you can follow:
- Standard Keto Diet (SKD) is the easiest because you don’t have to time when you’re going to eat carbs. This works best for the majority of people because it’s closest to a “normal” diet.
- Targeted Keto Diet (TKD) times eating carbs around your workouts so you get the best of both worlds to perform intense exercises on quick-burning carb energy in addition to your ketone fuel.
- Cyclic Keto Diet (CKD) is the most drastic; used only by advanced, elite athletes, you’ll cycle through both high-carb and low-carb days in the same week depending on your workouts.
Let’s discuss each of these in detail so you have a better idea of how this carb timing really works.
When to Eat Carbs on a Standard Keto Diet
The most common and beneficial type of keto diet for most people, SKD has a dietary macro breakdown of:
- Fats: 70–80% of your calories
- Protein: 20–25%
- Carbs: 5–10%
You’ll strive to keep your daily net carbs in the 20–50g range (depending on your specific needs).
Eat most of your carbs in the afternoon and evening. Contrary to what most people believe, there’s no scientific evidence to support the idea of carbing up heavy in the AM and working off these carbs throughout the day.
In fact, there are loads of studies to prove that eating carbs in the morning actually sets up your body for a neverending carb cycle of cravings and crashes. You can thank your body’s hormones for this.
See, sleeping puts your body into a fasted state overnight, which causes glucose and insulin to both rise in your system. As a result:
Your blood sugar and insulin levels are highest in the AM[*]. When your insulin levels are elevated, it’s almost impossible for your body to use the carbs you eat. Insulin, as its job as a storage hormone dictates, tucks away the energy from your breakfast and prevents you from burning these carbs for fuel.
When insulin levels normalize later in the day, blood sugar levels decrease and fat burning becomes possible again.
Your hormones also need to adjust according to the time of day.
Cortisol levels are highest in the morning too. Known as the cortisol awakening response, this stress hormone can increase as much as 38–75% as part of your body’s circadian rhythm, or your natural sleep/wake cycle[*].
Though cortisol helps your body get out of bed, it doesn’t play nice with insulin, which as we just discussed, is also super high in the AM.
Cortisol may not only enhance insulin’s ability to store fat, it may also create new fat cells in the process[*].
Like insulin, your cortisol levels will stabilize during the day and reach their lowest in the afternoon and evening as part of your body’s cycle to wind down.
TL;DR: Eat most of your carbs in the late afternoon or evening if you want to lose fat.
When 78 police officers followed a standard diet or one that required them to eat most of their carbs at dinnertime for six months, researchers noticed those saving their carbs for later had[*]:
- Lower appetites
- Greater weight loss
- Better fasting glucose levels
- Smaller abdominal circumference
- Lower body fat mass
- Improved leptin levels (which is the hormone that controls satiety)
Skip the pre- and post-workout carbs if you want to lose weight. Chances are you already have enough fat tissue to supply your body with energy for light physical exercise like yoga, walking, aerobics, dancing, swimming, gardening, etc. before and after your sweat sesh.
Add more carbs pre- or post-workout if you’re doing high intensity interval training (HIIT) or similar high-energy activity more than three times per week. The SKD macro breakdown will leave you a little slower than you’d like and may affect your muscle recovery post-workout if you’re super active.
Listen to your body and add a few more carbs to the front or back end of your workout (depending on where you need them most).
But if you’re an endurance athlete or bodybuilder, this may still not be enough.
While a huge segment of the keto population won’t need pre- or post-workout carbs, if you’re an intense CrossFit devotee or take your lifting to 11, having a few extra carbs in your diet will help you become more explosive and give you sustained strength, energy and muscle recovery.
Meet the targeted ketogenic diet.
Here, your SKD macros won’t change; you’ll just eat most of your daily carbs around your workouts, or between 30 and 60 minutes before your warm up or after your routine.
Your pre-workout carb “boost” will give your muscles all the quick energy they need to slay leg day and your post-workout carbs will ensure full recovery when you’re done.
Since these carbs will get torched during your training and recovery, they’ll never have a chance to be stored. You also won’t be out of ketosis for too long (and you can get back in quicker).
Now if building your physique one muscle group at a time is on your agenda, let’s talk advanced carb cycling next.
Cyclic Keto Diet for Bodybuilders and Pro Athletes
It’s a common myth that you must eat carbs in order to gain muscle. So if you’re looking to get ripped, you may be hesitant to start a keto diet and risk “losing” muscle in carb withdrawal.
But you can gain muscle on a keto diet — it may just happen slower than you’re used to.
On the bright side, you have less chance of gaining body fat and a higher likelihood of gaining pure muscle mass if you take the time and effort to follow the keto route.
CKD is the most advanced type of keto diet and delivers the highest muscle growth and long lasting performance. It’s typically used by bodybuilders and elite athletes who pay meticulous attention to their diet and watch every aspect of their workouts.
Why so serious?
Because CKD alternates strict keto days with serious carb-loading days in the same week.
On a standard keto day, you’ll consume around 50g of carbs timed around your workouts. Pretty normal, right?
Yet when you’re on a high-carb day, which usually lasts anywhere from 24–48 hours, you’ll bump your daily intake to 450–600g of carbs (depending on your body type and goals).
Now things get complicated.
CKD will maximize your fat loss and lean muscle building, but it’s playing with fire if you’re not burning those carbs immediately via intense, grueling workouts.
Since it’s so easy to go overboard with your carbs on CKD, your body will need to actively use all of them if you don’t want to gain weight.
It should go without saying, but don’t try to use CKD as an excuse to “keto fast” and then binge eat carbs for cheat days when you feel like it.
You shouldn’t attempt CKD if you’re new to keto. You should be lean without much fat mass to lose and unbelievably active. Think: high-performance individuals with teams of nutritionists, trainers and coaches.
So now that you have a better idea of when to eat carbs on keto, let’s talk about the best types to add to your diet.
While you’re on a ketogenic diet, you have to stay within your net carb range at all times. Fail to do this and your body either won’t reach a state of ketosis or you’ll kick yourself out, which will make all your prior carb-counting worthless.
Whether you’re following SKD or TKD, your body may not be able to handle more than a certain amount of carbs in a single sitting. It’s good to know the guidelines for where to start.
Use our Keto Macro Calculator to find out exactly how many carbs (and other nutrients) your body needs every day. Then experiment to see what works best for your body and activity level.
It’s easy to feel when you’ve had too many carbs. You’ll be:
- Tired and ready for a nap after you eat
- Hungry soon afterwards
- On the prowl for more carbs
So let’s dish about the best and worst carbs on keto:
Skip Simple Carbs; Go Low Glycemic Load
Choose glucose over fructose. Fructose replenishes glycogen stores in your liver instead of the ones in your muscles[*]. Because of this, fructose will stall ketosis (because it’s being stored) whereas glucose will be used immediately.
To determine your best pre- and post-workout carbs, it’s best to choose foods with a low Glycemic Load (GL).
Unlike foods on the Glycemic Index (GI), which only shows you how much sugar certain foods contain, GL gives you an idea of how much insulin will get dumped in your bloodstream when you eat that food.
See why that’s a better indicator when you need to use up the sugar quickly before it gets stored?
You can eat healthy, complex carbs in keto — as long as you balance your macros and time your glycemic load appropriately.
So the best carbs on keto include:
- Sweet potato
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Nuts (almonds, macadamias, Brazil nuts and walnuts)
- Raspberries and blackberries
- Chia and flax seeds
When you finally reach ketosis you should have enough energy to power through your workouts with very few carbs from your diet.
But if you’re missing the quick oomph carbs provide, you should try using MCT oil — especially c8 MCT oil — as a readily-available source of energy for your workouts.
It’s easily digestible so you can use it pre-workout without worrying about messing up your tummy and it will be used immediately. #WinWin.
Optimize Your Carbs on Keto
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to carbs on keto.
It’s best to avoid carbs in the morning and opt for a keto bulletproof coffee with c8 MCT oil or a protein-packed breakfast instead.
As far as carbs for the rest of your afternoon or evening, that depends entirely on what you’re going to do with them. Most people have enough fat reserves to use as energy for their workouts and recovery when they’re in ketosis and perform light to moderate activity.
But if you’re more the HIIT or suicide spin class type, you may do better with targeted keto where you can concentrate your carb intake for when your body needs it most.
Only you’ll know when you’ve dumped your body with too many carbs so always aim for ones with a low glycemic load — and get off your tush to use them — if you plan to stay in ketosis.