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How the Timing and Sequence of What You Eat Can Make a Difference

By now, just about everyone knows that what you eat matters. A diet loaded with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean protein can help you stay strong and healthy while eating lots of fast food and highly processed foods can negatively impact your well-being.

But timing matters, too. Even when you’re choosing primarily healthy foods, the order in which you eat them and the time of day you eat them can make a difference. 

We connected with Kristen Steiner, a registered dietitian with Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ, to find out more about how the timing of your meals and snacks can impact your health.

How does the sequence of what you eat influence your body?

We know that eating carbohydrates can lead to a spike in blood sugar levels. Fiber and protein don’t increase sugar levels nearly as much. “That’s because fiber and protein take longer for our body to digest and absorb, so they release their energy more slowly,” Steiner said. 

So, eating carbohydrates along with fiber and protein can help decrease the spike in blood sugar levels. Consider having a little bit of cheese with apple slices, or spreading nut butter on whole-wheat toast, for example. 

Along with combining these ingredients, emerging research is finding that the order in which you eat them may make a difference. Eating fiber first, then protein and fat, and finishing with carbohydrates could be beneficial. This order could slow the speed that your stomach empties and help lower your blood sugar levels.

It’s crucial to pay attention to fiber. Many people don’t get the recommended amount of this nutrient, which you’ll find in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Fiber slows down digestion and absorption and decreases the rise in blood glucose. “Adding more fiber to your diet is a simple way to increase variety in your diet and control blood sugar levels,” Steiner said. According to the Institute of Medicine, women should eat at least 25 grams of fiber per day and men need at least 38 grams per day.

Steiner points out that, regardless of the sequence of your macronutrients, eating a meal that includes a variety of fiber, protein and fat in addition to carbohydrates will help you create a healthy and balanced meal. And she notes that focusing on eating food in a specific order may be overwhelming and could lead to unhealthy or disordered eating habits.

How often should you eat?

No magic number of meals and snacks is right for everyone. Some people find that the traditional three meals a day work for them, while others prefer smaller, more frequent meals. If you’re concerned that the number of times a day you eat is impacting your health goals, talk to your primary care provider or a dietitian.

What’s the best time to eat your biggest meal?

If weight loss is your goal, it’s probably best to have your biggest meal in the morning. “Studies have found that eating larger meals in the evening resulted in less weight loss compared to consuming larger breakfast meals,” Steiner said. There’s an association between having a larger morning meal and a lower body mass index (BMI).

Starting your day with a healthy breakfast can give your body the energy it needs to begin the day and might also reduce the total amount you eat over the course of the day.

Even if you have a bigger dinner, try to cut back on late-night snacking. It’s been associated with an increased risk for metabolic syndrome, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar and high LDL (low density lipoprotein) "bad” cholesterol.

Should you fast as part of your eating routine?

Intermittent fasting — where you fast for an extended period either daily or weekly, has been a popular diet strategy in the past few years. But Steiner said that evidence supporting its effectiveness is conflicting, and more research is needed. 

Some evidence suggests intermittent fasting may decrease LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and energy intake and improve blood sugar levels. But other studies found that fasting led to consuming more calories later in the day and was associated with weight gain. Plus, skipping meals may not be the right choice if you take certain medications or have certain health conditions. That said, eliminating late-night snacks and having a 12-hour or so window between dinner and breakfast when you don’t eat is probably a good idea for many people.

The bottom line

Choosing a healthy diet matter, but how and when you eat makes a difference, too. Making sure your meals include plenty of fiber plus protein, fat and carbohydrates can help keep your blood sugar levels from spiking. And if weight loss is your goal, having your larger meal earlier in the day might be the best choice. 

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