There is a strong — but often overlooked — correlation between how long you wait between meals and blood sugar regulation. Many health-conscious people follow an exercise regimen and eat a whole food diet rich in fiber and carbohydrates from fruit, vegetables and grains that help keep blood sugar levels balanced.
However, when you eat is also a key factor in keeping blood sugar levels within a healthy range. So, how long should you wait between meals?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a normal blood sugar range, measured against the time you last ate, is between 80 and 130 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) before a meal and less than 180 mg/dL two hours after eating. These ranges differ from person to person. Eating fiber rich foods can help support blood sugar levels within a normal range.
Your eating schedule affects your blood sugar levels, which in turn can influence your overall health, wellness and ability to lose weight. With some diets suggesting you eat six times a day and others claiming you should eat just once, it can be hard to know what's best for your body and why. Here's where to start.
Every time you eat, a host of metabolic processes begin to turn food into blood sugar. Cells must absorb the sugar (glucose) in the blood, which provide energy for the body to function. To support this, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin, which helps cells absorb glucose and then store the rest as glycogen in your liver and muscles for later use.
If there is excess glucose in the blood, i.e. more than the cells can absorb or need and the glycogen stores are full, additional glucose can be stored in fat cells. That's why and how high blood sugar levels can lead to weight gain — and why knowing how long to wait between meals can be important.
There are two other natural consequences of metabolism:
First, eating food results in by-products in the form of toxins known as free radicals. Free radicals cause oxidative damage by stealing electrons from cells, which can lead to higher levels of inflammation. That's why a diet rich in antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables are so important — they help protect against free radical damage and detox the body, as inflammation is often an underlying risk factor to other health issues.
Second, the energy that could be used for burning fat is diverted toward digestion. After food is digested and blood sugar returns to baseline levels, the body will tap into fat storage and burn fat cells rather than glucose.
Eating many times a day does not allow blood sugar levels enough time to return to normal, which means the body has less time to burn fat. Not just that, but the body could generate more fat because the liver is storing excess blood sugar in fat cells.
So, how long should you wait between meals? By leaving time between meals, even allowing yourself to feel hungry again before eating, you stall spikes in blood sugar and insulin while giving your body more time and energy to burn fat.
Generally, it takes two hours after a meal for blood sugar levels to return to normal. If you were eating every two hours, your blood sugar might always be elevated. And over time, this consistent elevation in blood sugar could lead to long-term health issues.
However, eating three meals a day allows three to four hours between meals, which gives the body time to restore its normal blood sugar levels.
Not only that, one research study conducted by the American Heart Association showed that eating at regular intervals with "mindful attention to timing and frequency" could support improved cardiovascular health and an overall healthier lifestyle.
If you are committing to positive change through healthy lifestyle choices, consider cultivating a daily regimen of habits that balance blood sugar to promote optimal functioning. Start by giving yourself plenty of time between meals, exercising and choosing foods high in fiber and complex carbohydrates.