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Meal Timing: Why When You Eat Matters for Type 2 Diabetes Management

Diet and Nutrition

Updated May 31, 2023

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by K. Aleisha Fetters

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Medically Reviewed by:

Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE

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by K. Aleisha Fetters

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Medically Reviewed by:

Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE

•••••

•••••

Timing your meals and eating on a consistent schedule can help improve your blood sugar management.

You know that when it comes to managing type 2 diabetes, what you eat has a dramatic effect on your health. But so does when you eat it.

“Eating regular, balanced meals is critical on multiple levels,” explained Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, a Los Angeles-based dietitian who specializes in the management of prediabetes and diabetes.

From helping keep your blood sugar stable to regulating your body’s internal clock, here’s why meal timing matters with type 2 diabetes — and how to create a schedule that works for you.

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Meal timing helps regulate blood sugar

As you probably already know and have felt before, eating on a pretty consistent meal schedule helps keep your blood sugar stable and energy levels up throughout the day.

Go too long between meals and you’ll feel a noticeable blood sugar dip, Sheth said.

Meanwhile, if you budget yourself one really big meal per day, by the end of it, you’re likely to encounter a very dramatic rise in blood glucose and then a complete lack of energy the rest of the day, she said.

While glucose levels often hit their peak within about 90 minutes of eating a meal, the amount of time it takes for levels to return to normal varies from person to person. It also depends on whether you’re using a blood sugar-lowering medication such as insulin, which can quicken the comedown.

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Regular meals help regulate your internal clock

Regularly scheduled mealtimes are about more than blood sugar highs and lows.

When you eat is also a powerful signal to every cell throughout your body, influencing levels of inflammation, how quickly your body can replace old, dying cells with new, stronger ones, the health of your gut microbiome, and even your circadian clock.

Or, better said, regular mealtimes might do all of this good stuff for your health because they support your circadian clock, explained Dr. Anis Rehman, founder of District Endocrine, an endocrine practice in northern Virginia.

A vast network of 24-hour cycles that runs in the background of every cell in the human body, circadian rhythms drive constant fluctuations in hormone levels, metabolism, and everything you do and think. They even affect how your body responds to medications.

Even your microbiota, the good bacteria that live in your gut and are proving to be integral to immune health, have strong circadian rhythms they have to follow for optimal function.

Meanwhile, disrupted circadian patterns are believed to add to the development and progression of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Rehman explained that when you eat may affect the genes involved in setting circadian rhythm and metabolism.

How? A 2019 study suggests it’s related to something you already know well: insulin. Released each time you eat, insulin not only triggers the body to absorb blood glucose, but it also acts as a powerful timing signal throughout the body, the study authors explain.

The takeaway: The mealtime strategy that’s good for your blood sugar management is great for your total body health.

Your best meal-timing plan for type 2 diabetes

While it would be handy to give everyone a detailed schedule of when to eat, meal timing isn’t that simple.

“Everyone is unique, and it’s important to identify what works best for each person in terms of meal timing and blood sugar management,” Sheth said.

Here are some tried-and-true meal-timing guidelines to consider:

How should a person with diabetes start the day?

Eat a big breakfast. Eating a large meal in the morning and smaller meals for lunch and dinner may promote weight loss, lower glucose levels, and decrease daily insulin dose in people with type 2 diabetes and obesity, according to a 2022 review.

For the best effects, make breakfast a pretty substantial meal rich in blood sugar-controlling protein, fiber, and fats. Blood sugar levels tend to spike in the morning along with cortisol levels, so a lower carb breakfast won’t exacerbate the shift, said registered dietitian Aubrey Phelps.

How often should a person with diabetes eat?

As a general rule, try to minimize any long gaps during the day without fuel, Sheth said, suggesting that 5–6 hours between meals is the max most people with diabetes should push it.

Some, but not all, people may even need to eat every 3–4 hours for optimal blood sugar management, added Phelps.

Keep in mind that how often you need to eat is going to be a determining factor in your ideal snacking strategy.

How should a person with diabetes snack?

Sheth said she recommends her clients eat one to two snacks per day, but only if needed, depending on their lifestyle, activity levels, and how they feel.

After all, while some people really benefit from the snacks in terms of blood sugar maintenance, energy levels, and overall satiety, she said, others do better, leaving things at three meals per day.

In the end, the most important part of snacking might be the intention behind it. Are you snacking at 3 p.m. because you’re hungry and your blood sugar levels are getting low? Or just because you’re bored at work?

Paying attention to blood sugar levels, such as with a continuous blood sugar monitor, can help examine what’s going on for you, Phelps said.

How late in the day should a person with diabetes eat?

There’s a wide range of opinions on intermittent fasting, or going for long periods throughout the day without eating — especially when it comes to optimal health in people with diabetes.

But the one thing most experts can agree on is that fasting at night (when your body is meant to be sleeping) is beneficial.

Try to go 10–12 hours each night without eating, Sheth said. For instance, if you eat breakfast at 8:30 a.m. every morning, that means capping your nighttime meals and snacks between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. each night.

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The takeaway

When it comes to diabetes management, it’s not just about what you eat — when you eat matters, too. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, a little trial and error can help you find a meal schedule that works best for your health.

Remember to always talk with your endocrinologist before making any big changes to your meal routine. Changing your meal routine may require adjusting your medications and other aspects of your blood sugar management.

Originally written August 27, 2020

Medically reviewed on May 31, 2023

11 Sources


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About the author

K. Aleisha Fetters

K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist who regularly contributes to publications including TIME, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, SELF, U.S. News & World Report, Diabetic Living, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her books include “Give Yourself MORE” and “Fitness Hacks for Over 50.” You can usually find her in workout clothes and cat hair.

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