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Meal Sequencing: Food Order And Blood Sugar Control

Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Published in Nutrition

6 min read

July 12, 2021
a plate of avocado, tomatoes, a slice of lemon
a plate of avocado, tomatoes, a slice of lemon

Have you ever heard of the saying "eat your salad first?" The strategy of meal sequencing or eating specific foods in a particular order has been around for years. This tool is very popular in the diabetic world. However, if you are not diabetic does it really matter what order you eat your food in? This may surprise you, but the answer is yes! 

Meal sequencing has many benefits. The most beneficial reasons to start meal sequencing include fat loss, reducing glucose responses, and managing energy intake.

Here’s what you need to know about meal sequencing, and why it could be the strategy you’re missing in your own diet.

Why The Order You Eat Foods Impacts Your Body’s Glucose Response

Meal sequencing isn't a novel diet strategy. People have been using this health hack for many years. The reason why this tool never goes out of style is because it works so well with our human physiology.

The body breaks down carbohydrates into usable energy (glucose) fairly quickly. For this reason, carbs are a great fast acting energy source. However, when eaten alone this can often lead to higher glucose spikes, energy crashes, and feeling hungry again quickly later on.

A September 2020 study found that meal sequencing, specifically consuming protein and/or fat before carbohydrates, also promotes the secretion of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). This hormone reduces the secretion of insulin and glucagon. The combination of these factors have shown to improve postprandial glucose responses. GLP-1 has also shown to suppress appetite because it delays gastric emptying, keeping you feeling fuller longer. For this reason, meal sequencing may help improve glucose swings and help manage more stable values. 

The Potential Benefits of Meal Sequencing

Fat Loss

a glass of water with lemon, dumbbells, tape measure and sneakers

 When it comes to fat loss, satiety is always a big factor. The goal in any weight loss journey is to feel satiated while also being able to lose weight. Meal sequencing helps prevent large glucose swings, which is not only beneficial for glucose control, but also helpful for satiety.

In an April 2021 study looking at CGM data, researchers found glucose dips after a meal to be predictive of how soon an individual ate again. The study found that dips in glucose was a better predictor of subsequent hunger and energy intake. 

The key thing to remember is that glucose dips after a meal typically occur when there is a large influx of carbs. This leads to a larger amount of insulin production and subsequently a glucose spike and crash. From this we can infer that having a steady glucose helps maintain hunger while reducing energy intake.

Filling up on fiber before carbohydrates often leads to reduced energy intake. The reason is high fibrous foods are nutrient dense, often require more chewing time which causes slower eating, and can slow down digestion. This means these foods are filling, they have lots of nutrients, and tend to be lower in calories. Natural protein and fat sources are also nutrient dense and provide long lasting energy for the body, leading to longer lasting feelings of satiation.

Avoiding Blood Sugar Spikes That Damage Blood Vessels

When carbohydrates such as plain oatmeal, fruit, or bread are eaten by themselves, the body absorbs the glucose quickly. This means that glucose will be absorbed into the bloodstream at a faster rate. This often leads to a quick rise in glucose and a quick drop afterward. The rate at which glucose absorbs into the body can change when other nutrients such as fiber, protein, and fats are added in.

Adding in other food components such as fiber, protein, or fat into the meal helps to slow down the digestion of glucose. The body has to work harder to utilize glucose for energy, so it takes longer for glucose to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This often helps blunt the rise of glucose and can smooth out a glucose spike. When carbs are eaten after protein, fiber, or fat, the digestion of carbs and the rise in glucose is much more gentle, making energy longer lasting as well. 

When glucose is absorbed rapidly by the body, we are at risk for glucose spikes. High glucose spikes could potentially cause microvascular and endothelial damage, as well as oxidative stress. Atherosclerosis is caused when there is damage to the blood vessels, which leads to an inflammatory process. Repeated exposure to high glucose values leads to cardiovascular disease. For this reason, eating foods in a particular order can be great for preventing damage to the arteries.

Allow For More Flexible Dieting

a plate of porridge, veggies and meat

Eating in a specific pattern may provide more flexibility in your diet as well. A pilot study published in July 2015 found that eating protein and fiber before carbs resulted in significantly lower postprandial glucose and insulin levels compared to the same meal when the carbs were eaten first. The decreased insulin secretion found in this study from meal sequencing suggests that meal patterns have the potential to improve insulin sensitivity. These findings show that food order impacts the glycemic effect of food, providing a new perspective on restrictive diets. While traditional diets focus on "how much" and "what should or should not be eaten," adding this additional tool shows that glycemic responses can be improved with meal sequencing. This means that finding optimal timing for carb ingestion during a meal is as important as the content of the meal itself.

Food Sequencing Practical Tips and Tricks

 Meal sequencing is a simple method that can have a positive impact on postprandial glucose, energy consumption, and weight loss. If you are interested in trying meal sequencing, here are some tips to try:

#1: Eat Your Protein First

You tolerate carbs a lot better when they are not eaten on an empty stomach. Eating your protein before your carbs can help -- for example, eating eggs before your pancakes. Other tips would be to eat several pieces of chicken before eating rice.

Try these snack protein/fat combinations:

  • Boiled egg
  • Edamame
  • Nut butter
  • Cheese (aged cheddar, provolone, swiss)
  • Avocado
  • Tofu

#2: Start Your Meals With a Salad

 Eating fiber is a great way to help slow down the digestion of your carbs. This will help prevent glucose from rising and falling quickly. Eating a high fiber diet may benefit digestion, and aid in weight loss. It is recommended that men consume at least 38 g/day and women consume at least 25 g/day. 

Try including these tips into your daily routine:

  • Start your meal off with a salad
  • Focus on including non-starchy vegetables with your meals (Cauliflower, greens, asparagus, eggplant, mushrooms, cabbage, radishes)
  • Include a natural source of fiber in every meal. Try these high fiber foods - raspberries, apples, strawberries, quinoa, lentils, black beans.

#3: Consume a Handful of Nuts Before Your Meals

 Eating foods that contain both protein, fiber, and healthy fats is the best way to fuel your body with long lasting energy. This helps maintain satiety, and energy levels.

Include these foods that contain fiber, protein, and fat:

  • Handful of nuts (pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazel nuts)
  • Olives
  • Cold cuts and peppers
  • Plain full-fat Greek yogurt
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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.