When You Eat, Not Just What You Eat, Affects Diabetes Outcomes: Study

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Key Takeaways

  • People with diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Diet is one way that people with diabetes can manage the condition and reduce their risk of other health problems.
  • A new study has shown that the timing of when people with diabetes eat certain foods—not just that they eat those foods—may have an effect on their heart health.
  • Nutrition experts say that more research is needed before they would recommend that people try eating specific foods at only specific times of the day.

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans has diabetes. The condition puts them at risk for long-term vision, kidney, and cardiac health problems.

The usual advice for managing diabetes is to participate in physical activity, eat a diabetes-friendly diet with plenty of fiber-rich food, limit added sugars, and avoid cigarette smoking.

A new study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, suggests that when people with diabetes eat certain foods—not just that they do eat those foods—might influence their health.

All in the Timing?

One of the biggest factors that people living with diabetes need to think about in terms of managing their health is what they eat.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke than people who don’t have diabetes.

Therefore, finding ways to reduce that risk is key. Eating certain foods is known to affect a person’s heart health—both positively or negatively, depending on the choices they make.

However, less is known about how the timing of eating certain foods affects health—especially for people with diabetes.

The Study

To look for a possible link between meal timing and health outcomes, researchers in China used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on over 4,600 people with diabetes.

The researchers not only looked at what the participants reported eating but the times of day that they had their meals.

When the researchers looked at all the data, two key points stood out:

  • People who ate potatoes or starchy vegetables in the morning, whole grains in the afternoon, and dark vegetables (like greens and broccoli) and/or milk in the evening were less likely to die from heart disease. 
  • People who ate processed meat as part of their nighttime meals were more likely to die from heart disease. 

Qingrao Song, MD, of Harbin Medical University in China, and one of the investigators of the study, concluded that “nutritional guidelines and intervention strategies for diabetes should integrate the optimal consumption times for foods in the future.”

What Experts Think

Many people who are managing diabetes try to plan their diets carefully. They may get hyper-focused on which foods are healthful and which ones they’re supposed to avoid.

People who are overwhelmed by trying to strike that balance may find focusing on the timing of their meals instead of what’s in them is a more appealing strategy.

Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN

There’s no guarantee that eating or avoiding specific foods at specific times will prevent or cause heart disease.

— Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN

While patients might be interested in the idea, providers don’t necessarily feel the new research is enough to justify making that recommendation.

Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN, a non-diet private practice dietitian, told Verywell that “it’s important to remember that association isn’t causation” when looking at the researchers’ findings.

“There’s no guarantee that eating or avoiding specific foods at specific times will prevent or cause heart disease,” she said.

More Research Is Needed

Mary Ellen Phillips, MPH, RDN, LD, a Texas-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Milk & Honey Nutrition, LLC, told Verywell that while the findings were interesting, the study was “based on self-reported data, which can be inaccurate so we need to be cautious with our interpretation.”

According to Phillips, “changing up the time of day you consume certain foods would likely not have a negative impact, it just may not have the proposed positive effects mentioned here.”

Ryan Andrews, MS, MA, RD, principal nutritionist and adviser for Precision Nutrition, told Verywell that whether or not someone develops chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes “is governed by many factors.”

“We can’t draw a line connecting a single dietary factor (for example, when we eat a certain food) to a single health outcome (such as long-term survival in people with diabetes),” Andrews said.

Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN

There’s no one diet pattern or food list that works for everyone with diabetes. Different bodies react differently to various foods, macronutrients, and eating patterns.

— Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN

Instead, Andrews said that “we have to step back and consider food groups, eating patterns, nutrient deficiencies or excesses; meal timing, food preparation methods, food enjoyment, physical activity, stress, sleep, social support, trauma, and so forth.”

The study did not convince Andrews that people with diabetes should only eat vegetables and drink milk at certain times of the day. However, he said that the findings “add to the idea that coordinating meals with our biological clock is one of the many factors that influence long-term health.”  

Finding What Works for You

Even if they’re not using a timed strategy for eating, there are plenty of other steps people with diabetes can take to support their health.

Byrne said that for people managing diabetes, “it’s important to eat regularly and to create balanced meals and snacks that pair carbohydrates with protein and fat. This helps keep blood sugar steady.”

“There’s no one diet pattern or food list that works for everyone with diabetes. Different bodies react differently to various foods, macronutrients, and eating patterns,” Byrne said.

If you have diabetes, Byrne said that “taking regular blood sugar readings and learning how your body reacts to various foods is far more helpful than following blanket recommendations for foods to eat and foods to avoid.”

Ultimately, you'll want to work with your healthcare provider to find a plan that works for you. They know your family history, lifestyle choices, and access to food—all of which are factors that influence how you manage your health.

What This Means For You

If you have diabetes, there are many strategies you can use to stay healthy. Eating certain foods at specific times of the day might be part of a diabetes management strategy someday, but more research is needed before experts would recommend it.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The facts, stats, and impacts of diabetes.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 4 Steps to manage your diabetes for life.

  3. Jiang W, Song Q, Zhang J, et al. The association of consumption time for food with cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality among diabetic patients. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. Published online March 15, 2022. doi:10.1210/clinem/dgac069

  4. American Diabetes Association. Cardiovascular disease.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and your heart.