As a general statement, when we eat carbohydrate-rich foods (particularly starches), our bodies break those carbohydrates down into the simple sugar glucose and then sends that glucose to the blood stream.
Our pancreases then release the hormone insulin to signal to our cells that glucose is available for use (if needed) or storage (if not needed).
How quickly our blood sugar and insulin rise after a meal is an important factor in our overall health.
Rapid spikes in blood glucose following a meal, or “postprandial hyperglycemia”, has been shown to play a role in a variety of chronic disease, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Elevated blood insulin levels are also a risk factor for a variety of metabolic diseases.
One popular (and effective) method of keeping blood glucose and insulin levels under control is implementation of a low carbohydrate diet.
If, however, you want to manage your blood sugar without giving up carbs, you might have another option.
Changing the order in which you eat your food over the course of a meal – even if that meal includes carbohydrates – might be an effective way to keep your blood glucose and insulin levels under control.
One study, published in Diabetes Care in 2015, sought out to determine what effects food order has on post-meal blood sugar response.
After a 12 hour overnight fast, participants ate a meal comprising ciabatta bread, orange juice, skinless chicken breast, lettuce and tomato salad with low-fat dressing, and steamed broccoli with butter.
On one occasion, participants ate the orange juice and ciabatta bread first, then the rest of the meal 15 minutes thereafter.
On the second occasion, participants ate the chicken, salad, and broccoli first, followed by the ciabatta bread and orange juice.
On both occasions, researchers measured participants’ blood glucose and insulin levels just before the meal, then at 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and 120 minutes following the start of the meal.
The researchers found that blood glucose and insulin responses were significantly affected by the order in which the different foods were eaten.
“The mean postmeal glucose levels were decreased by 28.6% (P = 0.001), 36.7% (P = 0.001), and 16.8% (P= 0.03) at 30, 60, and 120 min, respectively, and the incremental area under the curve (iAUC0–120) was 73% lower (2,001 ± 376.9 vs. 7,545 ± 804.4 mg/dL × 120 min, P = 0.001) when vegetables and protein were consumed first, before carbohydrate, compared with the reverse food order (Table 1). Postprandial insulin levels at 60 and 120 min and the iAUC0–120 were also significantly lower when protein and vegetables were consumed first.”
A second study, published in Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism in 2018, confirmed these results.
In this study, researchers had 15 participants consume identical meals on three separate occasions.
The meals used in this study were nearly identical to the meals used in the 2015 study, but without the orange juice or broccoli.
Three food orders were tested:
- Carbohydrates first, followed 10 minutes later by protein and veggies.
- Protein and vegetables first, followed by carbohydrate.
- Vegetables first, followed by protein and carbohydrate.
Researchers tested blood glucose insulin levels just before the meal, then at 30, 60, 90, 120, 150, and 180 minutes following the start of the meal.
Glucose and insulin levels spiked the highest and quickest and then subsequently dropped the lowest and quickest after the meal during which carbohydrates were consumed first.
When protein and vegetables were eaten first together, glucose and insulin levels rose significantly less and remained more stable over entirety of the 180-minute assessment.
When vegetables were eaten first, insulin levels were lowest throughout the 180 minutes, and glucose levels were similar to when protein and vegetables were eaten first.
At this point, you might be asking, “what role does fat play in all of this?”
I could only find one study, published in 2006 in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, looking at the effects of eating isolated fat before carbohydrates.
It suggests that – similar to protein and veggies – blood glucose and insulin responses were minimized in meals in which fat was eaten first.
That being said, fat isn’t normally eaten in isolated quantities as often as protein, carbohydrates or veggies, unless a deliberate attempt is made to do so (e.g. eating a side of macadamia nuts or nommin’ on a stick of butter).
There are a few other reasons I’m a big fan of the “protein and veggies first” approach.
For starters, protein, compared to fats and carbohydrates, is the most satiating macronutrient, increases thermogenesis, and helps with building and maintaining lean mass, making protein critically important to health and body composition.
These reasons, along with the nutrient density of animal foods, are why I think meat, fish, fowl, eggs, or other animal protein should form the basis of every meal.
Every single time I eat, I start with at least a palm-sized serving or two (but often more) of animal protein.
You might even say that if you aren’t hungry enough for protein, you’re not actually hungry.
Second, vegetable intake has been linked to reduced risk of several adverse health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancers, cognitive decline, and stroke.
Third, if you don’t like the idea of completely abstaining from foods that don’t necessarily align with your health and fitness goals, you might find that replacing an “eat this, not that” approach with an “eat this before that” approach.
That is, you might find committing to eating meat and vegetables before moving on to more palatable “treat” foods to be a more sustainable approach than eliminating “treat” foods altogether (although moderation doesn’t work for everybody).
Putting it all together
If you’re looking for a simple, effective way to maximize nutrient intake, manage hunger, and minimize potential negative metabolic effects of your eating habits, you might want to start prioritizing meat and veggies with every meal.
Here’s a simple three-step formula to get started formulating meals:
- Start with one or two palm-sized servings of animal protein.
- Load up on colorful, non-starchy vegetables.
- Fill in the gaps with healthy fats and minimally processed carbs according to your needs and goals.
If you’re eating fattier cuts of meat, you might not need or want to add any fat to your meals, depending on your energy needs and body composition goals.
If, however, you’re eating lean cuts of meat and aren’t getting fat elsewhere (e.g. nuts, seeds, or avocados), you might want to add some fat to your meal to add a little bit of flavor and ensure that you’re hitting your nutritional needs.
Dietary fat also helps with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K.
If you’re physically active or feel better with a higher carbohydrate intake, you might add more carbs and less fats.
If you’re relatively sedentary or feel better with a lower carbohydrate intake, you might add more fats and less carbs.
If you’re looking to lose weight, you might not add much of either.
Regardless of your relative fat to carb ratio, you’ll want to prioritize meat and veggies and eat your carbs last 🙂
Keep it simple.
Focus on the basics.
Practice those basics consistently.
You’ve got this.