Nutrition is directly linked to health and disease. But the impact of your diet may involve more than what you eat or when you eat it. The order in which you eat your food might also play a role.
That doesn’t mean you need to pick apart your next omelet, stew or casserole. But when you have the opportunity to bite into one food before another, there’s reason to step back and consider the benefits.
Possible benefits of meal sequencing
Anything you put in your body can affect how your body functions. Many of those effects occur during the postprandial (fed) state — the period after eating when your body focuses on digesting food and absorbing nutrients. Your body can spend six hours or more in a postprandial state after each meal — that’s 18 hours a day for someone who eats three meals daily.
Experts want to understand how to minimize negative impacts during the postprandial state. Changing the order in which you eat your food is one possible way. Some research suggests that eating fiber, protein and fats before consuming refined carbohydrates (such as sugar, white flour and white rice) may offer some health benefits during the postprandial state.
Eating refined carbohydrates last may:
Prevent blood sugar spikes
High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) after eating can increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes, and controlling hyperglycemia may help with treatment for diabetes and obesity. Refined carbohydrates fall high on the glycemic index — a system that rates foods based on how quickly they cause blood sugars to rise and fall. But not all carbohydrates are created equal.
Complex carbohydrates such as beans, legumes and most vegetables are high in fiber and are slow to digest. The result is a gradual rise in blood sugar. Eating fiber before refined carbs can affect how those carbs impact your blood sugar, keeping glucose levels lower during the postprandial state.
A 2022 study of patients with Type 2 diabetes asked half of the participants to eat vegetables before refined carbs. After five years, that group significantly improved their average blood sugar levels (HbA1C) compared to those who did not eat vegetables first.
Improve satiety (fullness)
Feeling satiated after a meal is critical to maintaining a healthy weight, losing excess pounds and lowering the risk of obesity. The hormone GLP-1 helps with satiety because it delays gastric emptying (how quickly your digestive tract empties), which reduces how much food you can eat and suppresses your appetite.
Research shows that eating protein before refined carbs increases the secretion of GLP-1, delaying gastric emptying even further. People have the same feelings of fullness and appetite suppression regardless of whether they eat animal or plant protein. But their satiety increases when the meal is high in fiber.
Help reduce inflammation
Foods high on the glycemic index, such as refined carbohydrates and low-fiber foods, tend to have an inflammatory effect on the body. High blood sugar activates immune cells — they need to increase glucose metabolism. Over time, constant responses to spikes in blood sugar may affect how well your immune system functions.
Reserving refined carbs until later in a high-fiber, high-protein meal may also help reduce the sugar you eat — you’ll feel fuller on fewer calories. High-sugar diets, in general, may contribute to the development of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
But remember, meals high in saturated fat can also cause inflammation. To keep inflammation at a minimum, limit how much red or processed meat you eat and choose plant-based or lean protein instead.
Bottom line: In what order should you eat your food?
The most critical factor in a healthy diet is eating a balanced plate of food at each meal. But when possible, push refined carbohydrates to the end of the meal to help reduce post-meal blood glucose levels and keep you feeling fuller longer.
Consider these tips:
- Start with high-fiber, low-calorie foods with high water content, such as soups, vegetables and fruits. They’ll fill you up and limit the sugar you take in on an empty stomach.
- Choose soluble fibers, such as nuts or beans, to slow digestion and possibly lower your risk of heart disease.
- Eat plant-based proteins, which increase your fiber intake and lead to greater satiety.
- Save high-fat foods for after fiber and protein since they affect heart health and don’t help with satiety.