Carbs, despite being essential to a well-balanced diet and utterly delicious, are still considered public enemy No. 1 when it comes to contemporary weight-loss marketing. Carbs are the forbidden fruit of the food pyramid, Eve’s actual original sin, and the refrain of many faintly desperate women’s-section T-shirts. The most popular diets today tend to heavily restrict (see: carb cycling) or even eliminate carbs (see: the keto diet), which is why a Shape magazine story this week caught my eye: It features research out of Cambridge suggesting that “carb backloading,” or eating most of your carbs later in the day, can actually contribute to weight loss.
If you, like me, are thinking Yeah, this has not been my experience, a few caveats: Saving most of your carbs for later in the day is most likely to benefit you if you’re a nighttime exerciser, because carbs you eat before and after a workout contribute to muscle recovery and muscle #gains. Additionally, if you’re someone who is naturally hungrier in the evenings than in the morning, carb-backloading may make sense — basically, the theory here is that eating when you’re actually hungry is generally better than forcing yourself into a diet plan that makes you alternate between restricting and binging.
And finally, perhaps the most important disclaimer of all: the Cambridge study was done on 44 subjects, which is not very many. As Emmie Satrazemis, a registered dietitian and nutrition director at Trifecta, told Shape, “It is easy to prove just about anything looking at individual studies with small sample sizes.” Most statisticians agree that a study needs 100 subjects to produce any meaningfully significant result, which is part of the reason why so much of what we read on nutrition is messy, contradictory, and flat-out wrong.
So before you go eating two and a half bowls of cereal at night in the name of carb-backloading, consider that the scientific support is iffy at best, and if weight loss is what you’re after, you’re better off eating moderately sized servings of carbs only when you’re hungry for them. But if you want to eat two and a half bowls of cereal tonight for other reasons, like PMS, or generic worldly displeasure, or because they have chocolate peanut butter Cheerios now, that is also acceptable, if you ask me.