Carbohydrates, especially refined carbs, are the macronutrient most likely to trigger a rapid rise in blood sugar. That’s why low-carb diets have experienced a resurgence in recent years. With metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes being at an all-time high, eating a plate full of rapidly absorbed carbohydrates, especially processed carbs or sugary treats, won’t improve your metabolic health or help with weight control. With a sharp rise in blood glucose comes a quick and more sustained rise in insulin. When that insulin hangs around in your system for too long or becomes chronically elevated, it can lead to insulin resistance. In addition, being a fat storage hormone, high levels of insulin increase the odds that what you eat will be stored as fat.
Although you need insulin to get glucose and nutrients into cells, overproduction of insulin contributes to greater fat storage, especially around the waistline and places added stress on the pancreas to keep producing it. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Plus, insulin is a growth factor that promotes cell growth, including cells with cancer-causing mutations. In fact, some studies link high insulin with a higher risk of some forms of cancer.
Most of us aren’t willing to go on a very low-carb diet. On occasion, you might crave a bowl of mashed potatoes or other rapidly absorbed carbs, despite the impact it has on your blood sugar. Is there a way to mitigate that effect? According to a study carried out by the American Diabetes Association, you can temper the blood sugar rise by eating the protein and vegetables on your plate BEFORE you touch the carbs. Doing so reduces the blood sugar and insulin response you get when you finally bite into that steaming bowl of mashed potatoes.
Protein Before Carbs?
In this study, a group of overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes ate a meal consisting of a combination of carbs, protein, and fat. In total, the meal contained 628 calories. In two separate trials, the participants ate these meals in different sequences. In one sequence, they ate the carbs first (orange juice and bread) and then tackled the rest of the meal, consisting of a chicken breast, steamed broccoli, and a salad. A week later, the individuals ate the meals in the opposite sequence – protein and vegetables first followed by the carbs. Prior to the meal, the participants fasted for 12 hours. Researchers carefully monitored their blood sugar level at various times after the meal.
The results? The participants that ate protein and veggies before the rapidly absorbed carbs enjoyed a 29% reduction in blood sugar 30 minutes afterward relative to eating the meal in the opposite order. Their blood sugar was also lower an hour and at two hours after the meal. That’s pretty powerful, especially if you have pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. Even if you don’t, you want to minimize the glucose and insulin response to reduce gains in body fat. When insulin is high, it helps adipose cells take up glucose and fatty acids from the blood and store them as fat. It also tells your body to stop burning fat as a fuel source. That’s not what you want if you’re trying to stay lean.
The Power of Whey Protein
Another study carried out in 2009 showed that consuming whey protein prior to a carb containing meal reduced the blood sugar response to that meal. In this study, whey also increased CCK and GLP-1, two hormones that slow emptying of the stomach. This may explain some of the beneficial effects on blood sugar since carbohydrates entering the small intestine at a slower rate delays how rapidly they’re absorbed. This should lead to more subdued glucose and insulin response. CCK and GLP-1 decrease appetite and that’s also of benefit if you’re trying to control your weight.
The same may also be true for fats. Another study published in Nutrition and Diabetes in 2016 found that consuming fats and protein before carbohydrates yielded greater improvements in post-meal blood glucose relative to eating carbohydrates first. Although these studies were small, it suggests that simply changing the order in which you eat macronutrients can impact the glucose response to a meal.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should load up on refined carbohydrates. You’ll get more nutritional bang for your buck by eating whole, fiber-rich foods. Soluble fiber in plant-based foods forms a viscous gel that slows the movement of food through the digestive tract. Some types of soluble fiber, known as prebiotics, provide a ready food source for gut bacteria, thereby helping them grow and thrive. Prebiotics contain components, like fructooligosaccharides and oligofructose, that help probiotic bacteria flourish.
How important is fiber for weight control? A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and discussed on the Harvard Health Publications site showed that eating 30 grams of fiber daily can improve metabolic health, help with weight loss, and lower blood pressure. Most people only get about half that amount. The reason? They don’t eat enough plant-based foods.
The Bottom Line
Most of the carbs you choose should be from whole foods sources and not refined carbs with a tendency to trigger a sharp rise in blood sugar. However, when you do eat less healthy carbs, eat your protein and veggies first. It may help tame the rise in blood sugar you get when you eat those carbs. It’s a small step you can take to improve your metabolic health.
National Institutes of Health. “NIH study shows how insulin stimulates fat cells to take in glucose”
Men’s Fitness. “Why You Should Eat Protein Before Carbs”
Diabetes Care 32:1600–1602, 2009.
Nutr Diabetes. 2016 Aug; 6(8): e226.
Harvard Health Publications. “Making one change — getting more fiber — can help with weight loss”
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