Best Time to Eat Carbs on a Low-Carb Diet

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
Grilled Chicken Breast Salad

While low-carb diets have been shown to promote weight loss, carbohydrates are an important fuel source for your body. When following a low-carb diet, the timing of your carb intake is important to maximize energy levels and reduce your risk for unwanted weight gain.

Sample Meal Plan

Mayo Clinic notes that many low-carb diets contain 60 to 130 grams of carbs daily. However, John Hopkins Medicine warns that your body needs a minimum of 130 grams of carbs each day.

To maximize energy, avoid unwanted weight gain, and control blood sugar levels, it's best to spread your carb intake out evenly throughout the day. Higher eating frequencies are associated with lower body mass indexes (BMIs), and eating two snacks plus three meals daily helps prevent unwanted weight gain, according to study published in 2011 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

If your low-carb diet goal is 130 grams of carbs daily, you could use the following meal plan:

  • Breakfast: 30 grams of carbs
  • Mid-Morning Snack: 15 grams of carbs
  • Lunch: 30 grams of carbs
  • Afternoon Snack: 15 grams of carbs
  • Dinner: 30 grams of carbs
  • Evening Snack: 10 grams of carbs

What to Eat With Carbs

While it's okay to eat carbohydrates without protein or fat, like having a small piece of fruit for a snack, it's generally best to consume at least some protein with your carbs to boost satiety and control your overall caloric intake. Eating protein with carbs is especially important after exercise to aid in muscle recovery, according to a study published in 2010 in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

Healthy, protein-rich foods to eat with carbs include:

  • Lean meats
  • Egg whites
  • Seafood
  • Skinless poultry
  • Tofu

Nuts, seeds, dried beans, peas, low-fat milk, plain Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese and soy milk are excellent sources of both protein and healthy carbohydrates.

Don't Overdo Carbs in the Morning

When following a low-carb diet, it's important to eat carbs in the morning to give your body energy and maximize mental alertness. However, eating too many carbs for breakfast at the expense of protein and healthy fat may facilitate weight gain due to reduced satiety following breakfast, according to a study published in 2014 in the journal Appetite.

A healthy low-carb breakfast that reduces your risk of unwanted weight gain includes:

  • A very small portion of healthy carbohydrates - such as oatmeal, whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk, soy milk or fresh fruit
  • Protein-rich foods - like nonfat Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, tofu or egg whites
  • A healthy fat - such as nut butter, nuts, seeds or plant-based oils

Control Carbohydrates at Night

If weight loss is your goal, eating too many carbohydrates at night can lead to unwanted weight gain. However, eating about 30 grams of carbohydrates or protein 30 minutes before bed increases your body's metabolism the next morning, according to a study published in 2014 in The British Journal of Nutrition.

Carbs and Physical Activity

Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy during physical activity. If you're eating carbs every few hours on a low-carb meal plan, you should have enough carbohydrates stored in your body to fuel workouts.

Before Workouts

Exercising in a fasted state, which can occur when you work out early in the morning before eating breakfast, can help promote fat loss, according to a study published in 2009 in the journal Medical Hypothesis. Another study published in 2010 in The Journal of Physiology found that exercising in a fasted state can improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance when eating a high-fat diet.

However, if you're an endurance athlete, it's best to consume at least some carbohydrates before working out. A study published in 2008 in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism found that ingesting carbohydrates 15 minutes before endurance running improves physical performance.

After Workouts

It's important to refuel your body by ingesting protein and carbohydrates shortly after exercise. A study published in 2007 in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism found that ingesting 21 grams of carbs with 10 grams of whey protein enhances muscle mass gains after resistance workouts in men.

Carb to Avoid

When eating low-carb, avoid foods containing added sugar when possible. Such foods are high in carbs and don't fill you up like healthier carbs. Examples of carbs to avoid include sweets, sugary drinks, white bread, white rice, commercial baked goods, fried foods and highly processed foods like pre-packaged dinners.

Best Time to Eat Carbs on a Low-Carb Diet