Vegetables or Carbs: Which One Should I Eat First?


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Eating foods in a specific order – vegetables first, followed by proteins and fats, and then carbohydrates – is a popular “health hack” circling around the internet. Proponents claim that this can reduce blood sugar spikes after a meal, which may help reduce cravings, fatigue and health risks such as type 2 diabetes.

A deeper dive into the research

Previous research has called this ordered way of eating “meal” or “nutrient sequencing.” While there are limited studies, the findings on meal sequencing are consistent. For example, one review revealed that people who ate vegetables and proteins before eating carbohydrates during a meal had significantly lower blood sugar levels than when they consumed carbohydrates first. More specifically, a different study on people with pre-diabetes demonstrated a similar outcome. In this study, participants were told to consume grilled chicken, a salad, and bread in different orders: grilled chicken and salad first, then bread; bread first, then the chicken and salad; salad first, then the chicken and bread. Interestingly, participants who ate bread last had blood sugar spikes that were about 40% lower than those who ate bread first. These findings demonstrate that meal sequencing can be beneficial for preventing post-prandial blood sugar spikes. While this may not be entirely necessary for everyone, it could be helpful for those who struggle to have balanced blood sugar levels, such as people with diabetes. But why exactly does this occur?

What happens when we eat veggies and proteins first?

Some researchers suggests that consuming fats, fiber, and proteins first delays stomach emptying, which may slow glucose absorption into the bloodstream. Other evidence demonstrates that consuming proteins and fats first can stimulate the release of insulin and decrease insulin clearance, facilitating more glucose absorption. Vegetables play an important role too. Vegetable fiber slows digestion and can increase GLP-1 secretion, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar and control appetite. Together, these findings highlight that out of all the macronutrients, carbohydrates have the largest influence over glucose fluctuations following a meal. How could this way of eating compare to other blood glucose regulating therapies, such as diabetes medications? One team of researchers suggest that the effects of meal sequencing on blood sugar may be comparable to some anti-diabetic medications, but their small sample size encourages further research to strengthen these findings. Nonetheless, modifying the rate of carbohydrate absorption can be a therapeutic intervention for individuals with type 2 diabetes.

Can meal sequencing benefit people without diabetes?

Preventing a rise in blood sugar after a meal offers a variety of benefits, even in healthy individuals. In a normally functioning body, blood glucose levels will naturally drop within hours after a meal, thanks to the release of insulin from a healthy pancreas. Therefore, people with normally balanced blood sugar levels do not necessarily need to begin stressing over the order in which they choose to eat their macros. However, there are benefits that go beyond postprandial glucose. As previously mentioned, eating proteins, vegetables and fats slow digestion. This effect can build satiety, feeling fuller for longer, which may help with weight loss goals. Furthermore, bulking up on vegetables and proteins before consuming carbohydrates is a great way to get the most nutrition out of a meal, since carbohydrates typically have fewer nutrients and more calories.

While the findings on nutrient timing are consistent, eating macros in a specific order does not need to be for everyone. According to research, this dietary modification is most relevant for diabetics and can be paired with diabetic medications to better manage their blood sugar levels. Even for healthy individuals who are looking to make small changes to improve their dietary habits and are not too sure where to start, meal sequencing might be a great method to implement! If it is easy, it can be a positive way to increase vegetable consumption. However, if it feels too tedious, perhaps serving a larger vegetable/protein: carbohydrate ratio may be an easier way to enjoy a nutritious meal.

Monica Echeverri holds a Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States and currently works as a food photographer, writer, and recipe developer.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD