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Nutrient Timing – When to Eat Carbs for the Best Fat Loss

female working out with dumbbells

Nutrient timing is a highly effective approach to losing fat. By only eating carbohydrates at certain times, you can maximize your fat loss.

Why Nutrient Timing Works

Nutrient timing is effective because it works in conjunction with your body’s natural hormones. At certain times during the day your muscles are more receptive at absorbing carbohydrates. During these time periods, your insulin sensitivity is at its highest. This means that it will take less insulin to store the glucose that is produced from carbohydrates. How does this help you lose fat?

When your insulin is elevated, your body is unable to mobilize fatty acids. Insulin is a very powerful storage hormone. It takes the glucose in your bloodstream and shuttles it to the cells that need it.

If your muscles and liver are full of glycogen, they will not be able to store any additional glucose. During this scenario, insulin takes this glucose, converts it to fat, and stores it in various places on your body so that it can be used later.

If our goal is to keep insulin low throughout the day, we want to be very mindful of when we eat our carbohydrates. Carbohydrates have the biggest influence on your insulin levels, followed by protein, and then by fats – which have very little effect on insulin levels. It makes sense to focus on carbohydrate intake for nutrient timing.

Here are 10 ways you can improve your insulin sensitivity for better fat loss.

Carbohydrate Nutrient Timing

If you can limit your carbohydrates so that you are only eating them during the time periods when your insulin sensitivity is at its highest, you will make your goal of losing fat a whole lot easier. When are these time periods?

  • Your first meal of the day - After a night of not eating, your insulin sensitivity is higher than normal. This is because your body has been using the glucose in your blood and the glycogen stored in your liver to maintain body functions throughout the night. Upon waking, your body’s stores of glycogen are lower – resulting in a lower amount of insulin needed to store the carbohydrates you’re about to eat.
  • Your pre-workout meal - Most people don’t think of insulin sensitivity being high just before your workout. And really, it isn’t. However, during exercise, your insulin response is muted. Your pre-workout meal is a great time to get in some carbohydrates and some much needed energy for your workout. Find out if you should have a pre-workout meal, and see some good meal ideas.
  • Your post-workout meal - Your post-workout meal is the time when your insulin sensitivity is at its highest, and it’s a great time to implement nutrient timing principles. While you work out, your muscles use glycogen to fuel your exercise. So much so, that after your workout, your muscles just soak up the glucose in your blood. Your muscles are so starved for glucose that they are able to take the carbohydrates you eat and convert it into glycogen without any real need for insulin. Here is what your post-workout meal should look like.

Knowing that these 3 time periods are preferred for carbohydrate intake, we can then start to formulate a diet plan. Depending on your carbohydrate demand and your goals, I would prioritize my carbohydrate intake like this:

  • Carbs post-workout only
  • Carbs post-workout and first meal of the day
  • Carbs pre and post-workout, and the first meal of the day

Eat the majority of your carbohydrates post workout. This meal should consist of protein and carbohydrates and very little fat. The remaining carb-less meals should consist of protein, healthy fats, and veggies. Planning your meals this way enables you to get all the benefits from the 3 macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein).

It also puts you in a prime metabolic state to mobilize fatty acids. Nutrient timing is your answer to successful fat loss. By eating your carbohydrates at specific times of the day, you enable your body to remain in a fat burning state for a longer period of time.

  • Tom Parker

    I pretty much follow this plan although I don’t completely cut carbs out in the morning. I like to have a piece of fruit first thing in the morning but then I take most of my other carbs pre-workout.


  • Mitchell – Home Fitness Manual

    Tony, my carbohydrate focus is based around my workouts: with more carbs on the days I’m training and sessions (I do time my meals around my routines), and on rest days I find lower-carbs is best.

  • James

    Hi Tony, excellent article. Out of interest, what do you think of the carb free diets that are used by the Hollywood actors and actresses?

    • Coach Calorie

      There is nothing wrong with going no carb, but it certainly isn’t necessary. If you are weight training, you are going to need carbs at some point to fuel you workouts. Many times they will go carb-less during the week and then do a carbup on the weekend.

  • Ceciluak

    Hi tony, can you give me an example of a pre work out meal?
    I m 55 years old and only 5 feet tall . I work out and trying to loose 15 lbs. my breakfast before the gym is all wrong seems like
    1/4 cup old fashion oats with 1 cup of non fat milk or soy . 1/2 banana and cinnamon cook in microwave for 3 minutes or so and then I add a mix of fresh berries and either flaxseed or nuts . I eat this an hour after I wake up and work out around 10 in the morning . Help!!

    • Coach Calorie

      Your pre-workout meal actually doesn’t look bad to me. Oats with protein powder is a common pre-workout meal, and you are doing that with the oats and milk. You could also have a protein fruit smoothie. 1 frozen banana, frozen berries, whey protein, a little water and blend.

  • Laura

    i posted somewhere this question but never saw your answer – if I don’t eat some sort of carbs at night I don’t sleep as well – BIG difference! thoughts on this?

  • Coach Calorie
  • WW_1961

    Hi, great article. Does consuming Casein protein at bedtime affect this in any way? Does taking casein overnight mitigate eating carbs first thing in the morning?

    • Coach Calorie

      It’s a good slow-releasing protein for nighttime, but I would still have some carbs in the morning. Protein does not automatically equal glucose. Spare the protein for other functions.

  • Tracy O’Callaghan

    Hi I really struggle with breakfast but would like to introduce a smoothie is there one you could recommend please? Also I train mainly in the evenings and don’t usually eat anything after training is that ok to do? Thanks tracy o’callaghan

    • Coach Calorie

      I would eat something after training regardless of when I did it. Even if it’s just a snack.

  • Tracy O’Callaghan

    Hi please could you recommend a smoothie for breakfast, I really struggle to eat breakfast so thought I would try a smoothie. Thank you

  • JB

    Hi. Every articles on this site are great!

    Considering calories and nutrients are controlled…

    Do you think a person who has cravings for sugars can manage to eat cookies or a piece of cake after a high intensity/strenght workout without worrying about insulin spikes or a subsequent crash in blood sugar levels? Not that I would recommend it, but some people do have extreme cravings when it comes to sugar. Same question goes for breakfast sugars (nutella, maple syrup), are they that bad when consumed in a high insulin sensitivity state?


  • Coach Calorie

    Hi Tracy, maybe this article will help –

  • Coach Calorie

    Good question JB, and I have mixed thoughts. Yes, from a purely insulin sensitivity perspective, having those high sugar foods post workout would mute the fat storage impact. However, post workout is the prime time when your body is craving nutrients (MICRO, not just MACRO nutrients), and processed foods and highly void in them. Having said that, a little sugar here or there isn’t going to hurt you if you are able to control portion sizes. Just make sure you’re still hitting your nutrient goals.

  • Rory O

    Hi there;
    Quick question–what about on rest days, or days where you miss workouts? Should your carb intake be limited to vegetables only for that day (to optimize fat loss?) Thanks!

    • Coach Calorie

      There are many ways to structure it. Even on rest days, having carbs in your first meal of the day can be perfectly fine, as insulin sensitivity is still very higher after a night of fasting.

  • ZakMM

    Great article as always.
    Quick Question how do incorporate this in 3(B/fast, lunch & supper) meals a day meal routine. I work out in the evening


    • Coach Calorie

      Put the bulk of your carbs in your post workout meal.

  • Alan

    So tu sum things up for me. (Im an Ectomorph) Train Mo-Tu-Th-Fr

    Training day at 6pm. Mon-Tu-Th-Fr

    1:00pm High Carbs – High Pro – Low Fats

    7:30pm High Carbs – High Pro – Low Fats

    930pm High Carbs – High Pro – Low Fats

    Non training days. Wed-Sun

    1:00pm High Carbs – High Pro – Low Fats

    6:30pm Low Carbs – High Pro – High Fats

    930pm Low Carbs – High Pro – High Fats

    Cheat Days Saturdays

    Does this look good?

    • Coach Calorie

      Looks like you’re doing a combination of carb cycling and nutrient timing. I don’t see a problem with your setup as long as you’re getting sufficient calories in those 3 meals.

  • Lorelie McKersie Schaefer

    I have a question…..I always do my aerobic workout in the morning around 8 am and I am so confused as to do this workout before I eat or after I eat. I generally do it on an empty stomach then I eat after, is this wrong?

    • Coach Calorie

      Empty stomach is fine as long as your energy levels don’t suffer.

  • Tony Schober

    Hi Christi, I wouldn’t recommend that plan. Your friend is going to cause long term damage to her metabolism eating so few calories. She is likely eating around 500 calories per day. That’s nowhere near enough nutrition for a human.

  • Tony Schober

    I tend to eat them with every meal. Carb timing can be effective after you’ve nailed down the main concepts of weight loss. If you’re feeling sleepy on 50% carbs, consider dropping them down a little and upping your healthy fats some. Say go to 40% carbs and increase your fats 10%.