The world of fitness has no shortage of diets, meal patterns, monthly plans, and other nutritional strategies.
Of course, ‘experts’ behind each tactic promise the world, and make it seem like we are missing out by not following their advice.
One nutritional tactic that’s been gaining a lot of popularity in recent years is carb backloading.
It sounds fancy and science-y, but does it work? More importantly, what exactly is it, and what can we expect to gain from it?
Well, to learn everything there is to know about it, we’ve put together this carb backloading guide for you. In it, we’ll go over this eating protocol, and we’ll dive into the literature to figure out if it genuinely works.
Carbohydrates: A Brief Primer
Before going over carb backloading as a strategy to elevate your fitness results, we first need to take a quick look at carbs as a macronutrient.
Carbohydrates are organic molecules and, depending on their structure, come in one of two categories: simple or complex (1).
Simple carbs have one or two sugar molecules, and complex carbs are long chains of sugar molecules bound together. Depending on their structure, some carbs are broken down more quickly than others – for example, your body will break down gummy bears into usable energy much more rapidly than it will a bowl of rice (2).
Now, aside from that, carbohydrates are essential because they serve as the primary source of energy for the body, help replenish liver and glycogen, and provide the brain with the fuel it needs to function – glucose (3).
Once consumed and broken down, sugars flood your bloodstream, which sends a signal to the pancreas to release insulin – the hormone which then shuttles these sugars into the body’s cells for energy.
In other words, carbs serve an integral role in making us feel good, perform well, recover from intense workouts, and stay mentally sharp.
Below is an interview with John Kiefer. He is a Scientist, and author of the book, “The Carb Nite Solution”
Carb Backloading 101: What Is It And What’s The Logic Behind It?
Carb backloading (or CBL) is an eating protocol that revolves around the idea of strategic carbohydrate intake in the parts of the day when insulin sensitivity within our muscle and fat tissue is high. Supposedly, taking advantage of that would allow the body to more effectively utilize carbs for recovery, glycogen replenishment, and immediate energy, instead of storing them for later (as fat).
Remember how we discussed that insulin shuttles carbs into the body’s cells for energy? Well, carb backloading is intended to take advantage of when the body is most sensitive to carbs and insulin – most notably, after strenuous physical activity. In theory, having the majority of your carbs after training makes the body use most of them for energy rather than for fat storage.
Another example here is that muscle and fat tissue are both more sensitive to insulin in the morning relative to the evening (4). On that same note, it’s generally accepted that consuming more carbs in the earlier part of the day leads to better glucose uptake in our muscle and fat tissue.
And, thus, some creative folks have come up with the idea that training in the second half of the day and having most of our carbs post-workout is a smart way to trick the body and force it to use carbs for immediate energy and replenishment more effectively.
In other words, you would potentially prevent carbs from getting stored in your fat tissue (because of the decreased insulin sensitivity) and take advantage of the increased insulin sensitivity in your muscle tissue.
Over time, this would (supposedly) mean that we can build muscle more effectively, recover better, train harder, and put on less fat when eating in a caloric surplus.
But how true is that?
Below is Ben Pakulski. He is a pro bodybuilder and a fan of carb backloading. You can see him speaking about it in a video a little further down this article. Ben is also the host of a really cool podcast called Muscle Intelligence.
What Does The Research Say About Carb Backloading?
For the most part, observational data suggest that manipulating our caloric intake at different parts of the day can have a positive effect on body composition. More specifically, consuming more calories in the earlier part of the day appears to impact fat mass positively.
But, seeing as observational data should be taken with a grain of salt, we’ll be looking at several randomized trials below.
For the most part, two ‘rockstar’ studies propel the idea of carb backloading forward.
The first one came from Sofer et al. and was published back in 2011 (5). The trial lasted for six months, and the subjects were 78 police officers. In it, researchers compared the effects of consuming carbs mostly at dinner versus carbs eaten throughout the day. The diet consisted of 1300-1500 calories per day distributed as follows:
- 45-50 percent of calories coming from carbs;
- 30-35 percent of calories coming from fats;
- 20 percent of calories coming from protein;
Both groups were eating in a caloric deficit, and all subjects saw weight loss. But, the group that consumed most of their carbs at dinner saw more significant weight loss, fat loss, and waist circumference reduction when compared to the control group.
The carb backloading group also had improved blood lipids, glucose, markers of inflammation, and overall satiety.
What’s more, the carb backloading group also saw smaller drops in leptin (a meta hormone synthesized in our fat tissues, primarily known for its effects on our appetite and metabolic rate) (6). This could explain why that group had better satiety, which can partially explain the improved fat loss. For example, they could have eaten slightly fewer calories during the six months.
Another possible mechanism of action here could be a slightly higher metabolic rate. Smaller drops in leptin could have resulted in a lower metabolic adaptation (7).
The main issue with the study is that the diet wasn’t controlled tightly as the subjects themselves had to report their intake. It’s no secret that we’re not always our best judges, and some of the participants could have reported inaccurate numbers.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the researchers imposed a cookie-cutter diet upon the subjects with some general guidelines.
Finally, subjects consumed 20 percent of their calories from protein, which, for a 1400-calorie diet (on average), comes out to be about 70 grams of protein. For men who weighed 98 kilos (216 lbs.) on average, that’s entirely below the recommended average of 0.8 grams per pound of body weight (8).
Research seems to suggest that two to three grams of protein per kilo of body weight is ideal for optimizing body composition and increasing satiety in folks, especially on a calorie-restricted diet (9).
And, before moving to the other study, it’s also worth pointing out that the evening group lost about 5.5 more kilos over the six months. In a month, that comes out to less than a kilo more. It is better, but it’s nothing worth writing home about, and it certainly isn’t worth the hassle if it’s too difficult to sustain.
So, the results of this study should be taken with a grain of salt, especially given the fact that subjects weren’t given a structured training program.
The second study worth looking at today came from Keim et al. and was published in 1997 (10). In it, researchers examined the effects of consuming 70 percent of total calories in the morning versus the evening on body composition.
The trial lasted for six weeks, and subjects followed a hypocaloric diet consisting of 60 percent carbs, 18 percent protein, and 22 percent fat.
At first glance, the study made it look like the morning group had better results, as they experienced greater weight loss. But, there was a catch:
The morning group lost more weight, sure, but that came from lean body mass. Meaning, the evening group had better overall results as they better retained their muscle mass and lost more fat tissue (which, frankly, is the whole point).
Now, a couple of good things about this study, and some drawbacks:
This study was quite good because the caloric intake was controlled tightly and because the subjects were put on a decent exercise routine, consisting of cardio and resistance training. So, their results seem more applicable to the average gym-goer who is interested in trying carb backloading.
The drawbacks of this study are three:
- Researchers used total body electrical conductivity – a method based on the idea that lean tissue is a better conductor of electricity than fat – to assess body composition changes. As far as methods go, it works. But it doesn’t appear to be as accurate, especially given the fact that hydration status dramatically affects the results (11).
- The study had only ten subjects, which is quite small. How these effects might have changed if there were more subjects is up for debate.
- The study was short term – it only lasted for six weeks. Having a long-term study with a similar design could give us a lot more insight into the benefits and potential limitations of carb backloading.
In terms of design, this trial by Keim et al. seems to be superior. But, in terms of length and sample size, the first trial we looked at is the winner.
There have been other similar studies, but researchers haven’t seen any improvements in body composition or fat loss for carb backloading when compared to more traditional eating patterns (12, 13). Both trials were relatively short-lived (15 and 18 days long), and had their limitations.
So far, research seems to suggest that consuming most of our calories (and carbs) later in the day does offer slight improvements in body composition, weight loss, and hormonal changes.
Related: You might like another article on Pump Some Iron called, “Carbs for Bodybuilding – Everything You Need to Know” <- Click this link to check it out.
Here is Ben Pakulski discussing his thoughts on carb backloading.
Where Do We Stand on Meal Timing In General?
Meal (or nutrient) timing has gained a lot of attention in the world of fitness and sports nutrition lately. It sounds impressive, it feels grounded in science, and you’d think it makes a huge difference.
In essence, nutrient timing is the act of eating specific nutrients (and their respective amounts) at a particular time of day – for example, eating 150 grams of carbs after working out.
We’ve got some exciting studies on the matter, including a few trials that have looked at the famous ‘anabolic window’ and whether or not it has any merit (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17). To say that we’ve seen some mixed results would be an understatement. Indeed, it’s still difficult to say as we haven’t had that many studies, and most of them have had their fair share of limitations (for example, being short-term).
The idea of chasing the famous ‘anabolic window’ is also quite popular. In theory, it makes sense because stressing our muscles (and body, in general) makes us more efficiently use nutrients. We burn carbs for energy and more readily store them as glycogen (as opposed to fat), and protein largely contributes to protein synthesis (18).
So this line of reasoning made people freak out over the anabolic window, and we became petrified of possibly missing it.
“Hurry! You need to eat something the very minute the last weight hits the floor. Otherwise, you’ll miss the window of opportunity and that workout will be for nothing!”
Well, as it turns out, this window of opportunity is much larger than we once thought (18). It’s not now or never, but, rather, ‘doing it sooner could be more beneficial.’ This makes sense because, if you’ve caused stress to your body (for example, muscle damage), it will need nutrients to repair itself and grow. So, even if you don’t immediately supply them after training, it will use them quite effectively even hours later.
But, as we saw above, post-workout carb consumption can offer small benefits for body composition, so the topic of nutrient timing isn’t nearly as black or white as most people seem to think.
Here is Layne Norton discussing his thoughts on carb backloading. It seems he isn’t a big fan.
Carb Backloading Can Be Extremely Beneficial For Some People
It’s no secret to anyone reading this that the fitness industry is swarmed with all sorts of diets, eating plans, supplements, workout programs, and things of that nature, all designed to ‘help’ us lose fat, build muscle, or do both at the same time.
We are consistently led to believe that getting in shape is much more complicated than it is. Beginners are often mesmerized by fancy and science-y approaches that seem fantastic and promise the world. In most cases, it’s nothing but smoke and mirrors, but it takes time to learn that.
Carb backloading can be an extremely beneficial approach because it helps us break away from the complex. It teaches us that hitting our calorie and macronutrient goals is much more important than following some complicated system or restricting our favorite foods.
When it comes to weight loss and general body recomposition, carb backloading teaches us that simplicity is often enough to help us achieve great results because the approach is nothing more than having your carbs in the latter part of the day.
Plus, unlike many diets and eating plans out there, carb backloading fits nicely for many people, particularly those who:
- enjoy eating lots of food after training (or in the evening, in general);
- don’t have much of an appetite in the earlier part of the day;
- find themselves suffering from reactive hypoglycemia (19).
So, if you feel like having most of your carbs in the evening isn’t a big deal, it’s worth trying at least to see how it makes you feel.
Below is Nick Bare. He is an athlete / fitness enthusiast and distance runner who is also a proponent of carb backloading. It seems to be working for him….
But Wait, Isn’t The Overconsumption of Carbs Later In The Day Bad?
Prevailing wisdom suggests that eating carbs later in the day leads to fat gain. After all, the myth that we should cut all carbs out after 6 pm has been around since the 90s.
Many gurus and marketers today spread the myth, and beginners and folks looking to lose some weight are left believing that eating carbs at night is inherently wrong and fattening.
But, here’s the thing:
Fat gain cannot occur without a caloric surplus (20). In other words, your body will not store calories (from any macronutrient) as fat unless you’re also eating more than you burn each day. It’s not physically possible. The mere consumption of carbs (or any macronutrient/food, for that matter) at night (or at any other part of the day) will not make you gain weight.
Plus, as we saw from some of the research above, eating the majority of carbs in the evening can positively impact body composition, so the idea that carbs after 6 pm will fatten us is slowly losing its ground (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
Below is a video of Nick Bare explaining his experience with carb backloading.
An Example Carb Backloading Meal Plan (With Three Simple Steps You Can Follow)
Before wrapping this guide up, we’ve put together an example meal plan of carb backloading with actionable steps you can follow to set yourself up. This meal plan is based on bodybuilding macros for a 200-pound man during a cut.
We’ll be using this basal metabolic rate (BMR) calculator and this multiplier to find his total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Granted, there are many calculators out there, but these two equations are among the most accurate ones for active folks.
For our calculations, we’ll set the following stats to our hypothetical person:
- 200 pounds.
- 6 feet tall.
- 29 years old.
- Average physical activity (multiply BMR by 1.55 from the equation above).
So, his BMR is 2,029 calories, and his TDEE is 3,145 calories (2,029 * 1.55). We’ll begin with a standard deficit of about twenty percent, which comes out to be about 630 calories (3,145 * 0.20). His starting calories will be roughly 2,500 per day.
Once we have the starting calories, it’s time to distribute them across the three macronutrients – proteins, carbs, and fats.
First, we have protein. We’ll be using the simple rule of 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. So, our starting protein target will be 300 grams, which will take up 1,200 calories (since a gram of protein has four calories).
Next, we have dietary fats. We’ll be following the rule of 0.5 grams per pound of body weight. The general recommendation is to consume 0.3 to 0.6 grams of fat per pound of body weight, so we’re right in the middle. This will come out to be 100 grams of fats per day for a total of 900 calories (since a gram of fat has nine calories).
Finally, we have carbs. In this case, all we have to do is deduct the calories for protein and fats from the total (2500), and divide the final number by 4 – the number of calories per gram of carbs.
So, in our case:
2,500 – (1,200 + 900) = 400
400 / 4 = 100 grams of carbs.
Alternatively, you can get the bare minimum of dietary fats – 0.3 grams per pound of body weight – and you’ll have 760 calories left for carbs or 190 grams.
This is where things divert from your typical macro-tracking meal plan. The main difference is that, unlike standard eating plans where you eat carbs from dusk ‘till dawn, here, you’ll be saving up your carbs for your last meal or two.
In our example, we’ll be having six meals. To keep things simple, your first four meals will have almost no carbs (zero to ten grams, if possible), and your last two will be carb-rich.
- Meal 1: moderate protein + moderate fats + as few carbs as possible
- Meal 2: moderate protein + moderate fats + as few carbs as possible
- Meal 3: moderate protein + moderate fats + as few carbs as possible
- Meal 4: moderate protein + moderate fats + as few carbs as possible
- Meal 5 (pre-workout): low protein + moderate carbs (for example, 20 to 30 percent of your daily total) + low (to none) fats
- Meal 6 (post-workout): remaining protein + high carbs (about 70 to 80 percent of your daily intake) + remaining fats
You can make the individual meals as big or as small as you wish, so I’ll leave this up to you to decide and experiment with.
What’s great about this plan is that you get to take advantage of carb backloading, but you also get to consume some carbs before working out to fuel your performance. Plus, the plan outlined above is relatively simple to follow, and it would be an excellent fit for most people.
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