When is the best time to eat carbs?

Oh carbs...they get a bad reputation. My previous post explained carbs and shed some light on why they are misunderstood.

To recap: not all carbs are created equal; not all serve your body in the same way.

It is unfair to lump all carbohydrate sources into one giant group and label them as "bad." I challenge you to STOP the automatic association of carbohydrates with breads and grains- carbs come in many more nutritious forms. Quality and quantity are the most important factors of your carbohydrate intake. Read (or reread) my "good carbs, bad carbs" post before diving into todays post! 

question: when is the best time to eat carbs?

It is important to consume carbohydrates throughout the day. As I mentioned previously, quality and quantity matter more than the time. Let's visit each meal and discuss ways to scale back or replace dense carbohydrate sources.

If you consider how carbohydrates are used in the body (look here) then it makes sense to consume them when you expect to expend energy. Activity does not only mean exercise. Think about your day; when you wake up you face work, errands and chores. All of these require you to move in some way, termed "activities of daily living." This brings us to our first meal...

breakfast: the most carbs

At breakfast you fuel up for a long day and your body will handle the carbohydrate intake the best.

I love fruit, but fruit has sugar. Fruit BY ITSELF should not be your entire breakfast. Pair protein or fat with it so that your blood sugar stays stable.

Remember: the most carbs does not mean exclusively carbs. 

That's right. A bowl of plain oatmeal with a banana provides a good amount of a fiber. But, with that comes a whopping dose of carbohydrates which will steadily increase your blood sugar throughout the first hour or two of your morning. Cereal will have the same impact. These meals will leave you hungry and cranky well before lunch time.

Adding protein or fat (or both!) to your breakfast can make a huge difference. Why? When your body has to break down carbohydrates with protein or fat the digestion occurs slower. This not only helps you to stay fuller for longer, but it slows down the influx of glucose (the breakdown product of carbohydrates that raises your blood sugar) into the blood stream. This is good for your energy, cravings, and LONG TERM health. 

Enjoying morning carbs the right way: 

  • Add a scoop of protein powder to your oatmeal
  • Make overnight oats using full fat yogurt and top with fruit and nut butter.
  • Add a big scoop of nut butter to your oatmeal or fruit
  • Add an egg to your meal or make eggs the main attraction
  • Switch from fat-free to full-fat dairy (choose organic if possible)
  • Replace fruit flavored low fat yogurt with FULL FAT plain or vanilla, add your own fruit
  • Smoothie lover? Add avocado, protein powder, coconut milk or nut butter. If you're adventurous, add them all!
  • Replace toast with sweet potato hash (use a handheld grater to shred your sweet potato and then cook it on the stove in butter)

If you follow me on instagram you have probably seen my many breakfast posts. Just because I don't eat cereal and bagels does not mean I am not eating carbs! My typical breakfast is an egg bake made with lots of veggies (carbs) and some type of sausage. I have my egg bake topped with grass-fed butter (fat), avocado (more fat), kimchi (probiotics and carbs) and fruit (carbs). Lately, my fruit of choice has been grapefruit because they are in season and therefore budget friendly. 

lunch: don't let carbs steal the show

Lunch can be a tricky place to make changes. You still want carbohydrates, but again, focus on good quality, nutrient dense sources. You also want to make sure you are getting adequate protein and fat to stay full and satisfied until the end of the day. If breads are a staple part of your lunch, you definitely want to keep reading... 

First, determine how you can increase your vegetable intake.

  • Lots and lots and lots of veggies. If you purchase lunch get a side of vegetables with butter or a side salad. (to go with the rest of your meal, we don't want to starve ourselves here!)
  • A good rule of thumb if you do purchase food is to make half of your plate vegetables.
  • Baby carrots and other raw veggies can replace chips/crackers. Bring hummus or guacamole to go with them!
  • Add leftover veggies from last night's dinner to whatever you normally pack.

Next, begin to decrease the quantity of nutrient poor, carbohydrate dense foods.

  • Sandwich eater? Have your sandwich open faced and toss one slice of the bread. Add extra veggies, cheese, meat, and avocado.
  • Replace your chips or crackers with something else, like the veggies mentioned above, or nuts.
  • Food for Life makes a line of sprouted grain products. Their breads must be kept in the fridge or freezer, as they spoil quickly. The fact that this bread will grow mold after just a few days at room temperature is evidence that it is less processed than the bread you will find in the bread aisle. Additionally, you will recognize all of their ingredients. Switching to a bread such as this can be a great place to start!
  • Cook up a bunch of sweet potatoes and use them to replace the pasta or bread in your lunch. Root vegetables such as parsnips and carrots work too! My favorite grain replacements are spaghetti squash or cauliflower rice.
  • Packing leftover pasta from dinner as lunch...? then it's time to talk about dinner ;)

Lunch doesn't need to be glamorous. Here is spaghetti squash, roasted carrots, some sautéed spinach, chicken and avocado.

My lunch is usually about 1 c of cauliflower rice or spaghetti squash with some kind of green vegetable. Lately I have been loving swiss chard! These vegetables provide me with enough carbohydrates but they don't overdo it. I always have some form of protein, such as chicken or pork, and a good amount of fat to go with it.

dinner: winding down

 We have talked about nighttime eating before. Although we can enjoy carbohydrates throughout the entire day, dinner should get the least emphasis. After dinner you are probably relaxing, catching up on work, or studying. Few people get much activity (or ADLs) between dinner and bedtime. For this reason it makes sense to avoid overloading yourself with carbohydrates at dinner.

The ideal dinner contains- you guessed it- vegetables for carbohydrates, meat or seafood for protein, and fat. Asparagus (now in season) baked with salt pepper and olive oil and enjoyed with lemon-butter chicken or salmon is a perfectly delicious and satisfying meal.

Lemon-butter salmon: Preheat oven to 375: Take a piece of foil, put down two lemon slices, lay a piece of salmon over the lemon slices and season w/ S&P, put two slices of butter on top of the salmon. Wrap loosely (like a tent) and bake for 20-25 minutes until opaque..

If pasta is a common dinner choice, start by decreasing your portion. In order to stay full and satisfied you must decrease your portion while simultaneously adding a food to take its place. To do that, decrease the amount of pasta you cook and increase (double) the amount of veggies you cook or add to your pasta. Ensure there is a source of protein. This can be a meat, fish, or even hard boiled eggs.

Remember: you will only be successful at decreasing your carbohydrate load if you ADD in a good amount of fat. Add cheese cubes, full fat ricotta cheese, copious amounts of olive oil or butter, or nuts.

Eventually, you can work up to replacing pasta with a vegetable source such as spaghetti squash or zoodles. Try replacing white potatoes with cauliflower mash, it is just as delicious! Yum! (How to cook spaghetti squash>> here )

A batch of meat and veggie sauce (I believe this was a Giada De Laurentis bolognese recipe from one of her cookbooks) with spaghetti squash! The whole family loved this, no one missed the pasta :)

You may find that by decreasing your refined and carbohydrate dense dinner foods and increasing your intake of healthy fats that you no longer crave or "need" dessert after dinner. It is pretty amazing.

So when it comes to the best time to eat carbs, remember it can always be a good time for carbs. The important part is choosing a quality carbohydrate source and not overdoing it. We want to focus on the filling, nutrient dense, carbohydrate sources that offer us more than just carbohydrates. The most carbohydrate dense items will be best enjoyed at breakfast or before/ after exercise (which I will discuss in my next post!). Regardless of what your carbohydrate intake is right now, the goal should be the same: Aim to spread your carbs throughout the day, slow and steady.

I have been known to eat cauliflower rice straight from the fridge- it is THAT tasty. (Danielle Walker from Against all grain has the best recipe, find her cookbooks at Costco and other book retailers)

Remember"Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper." This applies to your carb intake as well!

And a new one to keep in mind when you evaluate the carb load at each meal: "Slow and steady wins the race."

Until next time...