Episode 007: Carbs and Fat Loss – Timing Matters

In the the “Carbs and Fat Loss – Timing Matters” episode of the Primal Potential podcast we are busting a major weight loss myth – the myth that you should eat carbs in the morning so you have all day to “burn them off”. I hate to break it to the folks perpetuating that myth, but that’s just not how the body works. The human body is not accounting software working on a first in, first out burn model.

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The Myth: For optimal fat loss results, eat carbohydrates in the morning so you have the rest of the day to burn them off. Avoid eating carbs at night because you won’t burn them while you sleep. THESE ARE FAT LOSS MYTHS!!!!!

The Facts: Carbs in the morning might be a perfectly fine strategy for endurance, muscle gain or weight maintenance but it is the WRONG strategy for fat loss. Why? There are certain unique hormonal conditions in the morning that make adding carbs a bad idea when fat loss is your goal.

  • It’s the same way with our reaction to carbohydrates. Because of that overnight fast we have a much more extreme reaction to carbohydrate introduction in the morning. But as the day goes on, as we eat throughout the morning and afternoon, as our hormones shift with the normal daily cycles, we become LESS sensitive to those spikes in blood sugar and insulin and we won’t create as extreme of a response. So there is definitely a RIGHT TIME for carbohydrates that still allows you to burn fat. But we’ll get to that.
  • So if that’s true, how can we ever eat carbohydrates at ANY time of the day and still burn fat? That’s a really great question. The overnight fast makes us SUPER sensitive to a rise in blood sugar. Its like if you’ve been in a dark room for 8-12 hours and all of a sudden you step into the light. You’re going to have a more extreme reaction than if you’ve been periodically exposed to light all day and then go out into the sunlight.
  • Here’s the other thing that happens when we start the day off with carbohydrates – I bet you’ve experienced it before – you wake up and start your day with some granola and fruit or an English muffin – you’re hungry again in just an hour or two! And you’re craving more carbs like crazy!!! THAT is a direct result of eating carbs in the morning. Because our blood sugar is low in the morning, introducting these carbs causes a spike in a blood sugar and rapid insulin response. As sharp as the spike was, the drop off is just as extreme. Our blood sugar falls really fast because of the massive insulin response. And that drop in blood sugar tells our body to sound the alarms of hunger and cravings. When we make better food choices, we AVOID that hunger/cravings cycle. But when we start our day with cereal, a bagel, an English muffin, fast food, even fruit, we enter into that cycle of hunger, cravings and fat storage because of the way we have triggered an insulin reaction at the most sensitive time of the day.
  • The wrong food choices? Yup. Carbohydrates? Why? Because they are broken down into sugars which travel through blood and trigger the release of insulin. The presence of insulin turns off fat burning.
  • The good news is that when we wake up in the morning after not eating overnight, we’re in peak fat burning mode. If we make the RIGHT food choices, we can STAY in fat burning mode. If we make the WRONG food choices, we turn off that fat burning state.
  • Insulin is deployed in response to sugar in the blood, right? Sugar is in the blood after we consume carbohydrate rich foods like wheat, oats, grains, fruit or processed foods. The presence of insulin sends a message to the body that there is EXTRA fuel (via the sugar) in the body. The body then goes into storage mode and turns off any breakdown activities like fat burning. Your body is really efficient, so its not going to break down your stored body fat for energy when there’s already enough fuel available. And extra sugar in the blood tells the body, “Hey, we’ve got energy here. We’re good. No need to provide anymore” – and burning fat does exactly that – it takes your stored energy – body fat – and breaks it down to provide immediate fuel for the body. The presence of insulin keeps the body from allowing fat burning because insulin tells the body that extra fuel is not needed.
  • We have to understand the environment we’re in when we wake up in the morning. We naturally wake up in peak fat-burning state because we’ve been fasting overnight. Having not eaten for many hours, our blood sugar is low and therefore we don’t have much of the hormone insulin floating around our system. That creates great conditions for fat loss. What does low insulin have to do with fat burning?
  • There is another hormonal situation that creates a really strong argument for skipping the carbs in the morning. Cortisol levels are at their peak in the morning. Cortisol, a stress hormone, rises throughout the night and reaches it’s peak in the morning. This is part of your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle. The rise of cortisol overnight helps you naturally wake up in the morning. The prescence of this high cortisol level in the morning can help facilitate fat loss. However, if you elevate your insulin levels, game over. Cortisol compounds the fat-storing effects of insulin. Not only that, in combination, they can actually trigger the generation of brand new fat cells. We do NOT want to raise insulin levels at the time of day when cortisol is at its highest.
  • Cortisol levels drop throughout the day. By limiting your carbohydrate consumption to the evening, you’ve avoided these catastrophic effects of a high-insulin + high-cortisol environment. (Keep in mind that excessive stress elevates cortisol so you want to do all you can to manage your emotional and physical stress).

Practical Implementation:

  • Avoid carbohydrates in the morning. That’s right – for optimal fat loss – no carbs for the first part of the day. This means saying no to oats, wheat, grains, processed foods, most dairy and even fruit. At least in the morning!
  • Emphasize fat and protein in the morning. Great breakfast options include bulletproof coffee, eggs, bacon, fritattas, meat muffins, chia seed puddings, or if you’re in a time crunch, a low-carb protein shake
  • Limit your carbohydrates to your dinner time meal or post workout.
  • Watch your carb portion sizes. We always want to manage our insulin response, no matter the time of day. Try not to exceed 1/2 cup carbohydrates at any point. Some people will get best results with 1/4 cup.
  • Always consume your carbohydrates with either fat or protein, never consume them on their own. This might look like adding butter to your sweet potato and always having a piece of chicken or fish with your rice.

Resources:
Carb Strategies E-course
The Hormones & Fat Loss ebook – 50 pages of specific strategies to help you naturally balance your hormones and achieve lasting fat loss!
The Truth About Carbs & Fat Loss
Bulletproof coffee
Chia Seed Pudding (omit the fruit in the AM)
Reduce hunger and carb cravings

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21 replies
  1. Podcast listener
    Podcast listener says:

    Don’t we want to be insulin sensitive in the morning that way we can tolerate eating healthy carbs? I recall insulin sensitivity being a good thing in another one of your posts. This way insulin works more efficiently.
    I eat grains in the morning. It may be oats, cereal or wheat bread with at least 2 grams of fiber (processed, i know : /) and I don’t feel hungry until lunch time which is 4-5 hours later.
    I also limit healthy carbs (with fiber) at around 40-50 grams per meal for the most part. I feel fine and eat every 4+ hours.
    The USDA recommends a minimum intake of 130 grams of carbohydrates a day for men and women otherwise your body enters ketosis. This can lead to ketoacidosis where the levels of ketones rise abnormally high level which poisons the body. It’s a dangerous and serious condition that can develop very rapidly.
    In my opinion and experience, your body will burn fat naturally by following a healthy and balanced diet (carbs, protein and fat) and exercise regularly.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Benton
      Elizabeth Benton says:

      Insulin sensitivity is absolutely a wonderful thing – not a bad thing. We aren’t avoiding carbs in the morning because insulin sensitivty is bad, but rather to take advantage of it. I talk a lot about this in Q&A 2 – I also go into exactly why many people can eat carbs in the AM and burn fat – it is all about their higher degree of insulin sensitivity. Thanks so much for weighing in with your opinion & experience. Knowing what works for you is powerful and I’m glad you’ve found it for you!

      Reply
    • Elizabeth Benton
      Elizabeth Benton says:

      I also don’t advocate a low carb or no carb diet, I do advocate a whole foods + smart carb approach. Quality, quantity and timing are important and as I talk about in Q&A 2, finding the approach that works best for you is a powerful, wonderful thing. Much love!

      Reply
  2. Nasos
    Nasos says:

    “Watch your carb portion sizes. We always want to manage our insulin response, no matter the time of day. Try not to exceed 1/2 cup carbohydrates at any point. Some people will get best results with 1/4 cup.”

    Do you mean cooked or raw carbs? And are these portions for the whole day or for the post workout and dinner meals?

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Benton
      Elizabeth Benton says:

      Hi Nasos, Thanks for your question! It’s a great one. The carb timing refers to all carbs EXCEPT non-starchy vegetables. Non starchy veggies can and should be enjoyed liberally at any time of day as they have a negligible impact on blood sugar & therefore insulin. When FAT LOSS is the goal, I find that most people experience best results when they limit carbs (except non starchy veggies) to dinner time or post workout. That is grains, oats, wheat, fruit, starchy veggies, processed foods, etc. I recommend what I coined as the Golden Rules of carbs & fat loss which I’ve written in detail about at the link below. I do specify, however, that everyone has a diff carb tolerance and YOUR body has all the answers for you. In Q&A 2 of the podcast I talk about carb tolerance, how to assess yours and how to improve it. http://primalpotential.com/rules-carbs-and-fat-loss/

      Reply
  3. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    Hey,
    I’m really intrigued by your methods, research and ideas here – I think it might be just what I need to get over my plateau (already lost 35lbs and have been hovering at the same weight for a few months).
    However, I am concerned how only one or two 1/2c servings of starchy carbs a day adds up to the minimum requirement for the body to function properly (currently no less than 130g of carb per day without compromising the brain’s supply of glucose). You say you do not advocate a low carb diet but 1/2 cup of oats or rice, or 1 banana, is only about 30grams of carbs.. Let me know how you get enough carbs to prevent ketosis, and also how the macronutrients are distributed in relation to fat and protein. Do you consume a larger percent of calories from fat and protein to make up for the smaller amount from carbs? The AMDR states 45-65% of calories from carbohydrate is sufficient. Too much protein can cause strain on the kidneys.

    Let me know your feelings on this, I’m willing to give carb timing a try so long as it still aligns with the USDA recommendations! In other words, I think holding off on carbs in the morning makes a lot of sense, but I just want to make sure everyone is meeting the minimum requirement for the rest of the day and not forced into ketosis.

    – Jordan (graduate level nutrition student and future RD!)

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Benton
      Elizabeth Benton says:

      Hi Jordan – realize that vegetables are carbohydrates, first and foremost. Processed grains, beats, wheat, etc were not introduced into the food supply until pretty recently and that introduction correlates to the increase in obesity. People thrived long before that introduction 🙂 And, more than anything, what I advocate is what works best for YOU. Also, we’re talking about the pursuit of fat loss 🙂 Personally, I EASILY consume close 100g of carbs/day in vegetables. Re: too much protein- I’ve written and podcasted at length about not consuming an excess of any single macro, including protein. If you want to align yourself with USDA, go ahead, that’s absolutely 100% your preogative!

      Reply

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