When is the best time to eat dessert? I’ve heard it is better to eat it immediately following a meal because the protein in the meal will help stabilize the blood sugar. But I’m often too full after my meal to enjoy dessert. I’d prefer to wait a couple of hours. In fact, I often crave a sweet bite a couple of hours after eating. Is that my blood sugar plummeting?
How does dessert affect your blood sugar?
Our blood sugar does go up after we eat, but that’s not necessarily a problem—it’s actually how the system is designed.
Most of the carbohydrates we consume are broken down into glucose, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream. When blood sugar levels go up, it triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas, which ushers the glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells of the body. There, the glucose is used as fuel or, if no more fuel is needed, stored for future use.
Regardless of how quickly or slowly its absorbed, eating an excessive amount of sugar can be a problem.
It’s also true that carbohydrates cause a faster rise in blood sugar when they’re eaten by themselves. This is also not necessarily a problem. If it’s not a huge amount of carbohydrate, then no matter how fast it’s absorbed, your blood sugar can only get so high. And then, assuming that your body is capable of producing insulin and your cells are reasonably responsive to its effects, your blood sugar will return to normal.
Regardless of how quickly or slowly its absorbed, however, eating an excessive amount of sugar can be a problem. For one thing, no matter how slowly it’s taken up into your bloodstream, it all gets in there eventually. If you’re consuming more calories than you can use, the excess will be stored as fat.
What causes insulin resistance?
But what happens if your body is not able to efficiently clear the sugar from your blood into your cells? The cells can become resistant to the effects of insulin.
Insulin resistance is often the first step in developing Type 2 diabetes.
When this happens, the sugar isn’t cleared as effectively from the bloodstream. Not only is it not available as an energy source for cells but chronically high blood sugar can lead to a number of serious health issues. Insulin resistance is often the first step in developing Type 2 diabetes.
A lot of us worry that if we eat too much sugar, too often, it will lead us to develop insulin resistance or diabetes. And now, we understand it’s more the other way around: Insulin resistance (or poorly controlled diabetes) results in chronically high blood sugar.
It turns out that eating a lot of sugar, or eating foods that are rapidly converted into blood sugar, are not the primary factors in the development of insulin resistance. The primary factors are excess body weight (especially around the waist) and a sedentary lifestyle.
For those who do not have diabetes or insulin resistance, the short-term impact of dessert on your blood sugar is probably not as big a concern as the long-term impact of dessert on your body weight.
That doesn’t mean that eating a lot of sugar doesn’t have consequences. If your body weight starts to drift up (whether from overeating sweets or any other food), that does increase your risk of insulin resistance.
In other words, for those who do not have diabetes or insulin resistance, the short-term impact of dessert on your blood sugar is probably not as big a concern as the long-term impact of dessert on your body weight.
Should you wait before eating dessert?
Anita wondered, for example, whether the fact that she starts to crave a sweet treat a couple of hours after eating might be a sign that her blood sugar is plummeting. A couple of hours after a full meal, your blood sugar may be returning to baseline. This is not the same as plummeting, and it’s not a problem. It’s fine for your blood sugar to remain at baseline for a couple of hours. Your cells still have plenty of energy from your last meal.
There’s a big difference between being ‘not full’ and being ‘hungry.’
It’s more likely that when we’re no longer full, our minds return to the thought of that appealing dessert. There’s a big difference between being “not full” and being “hungry.” When sweets and snacks sound good but vegetables or another healthy choice doesn’t, that’s usually a sign that we’re not actually hungry. We’re responding to other triggers, such as boredom, habit, or simply the presence of tempting food.
How to enjoy dessert
In terms of managing your blood sugar, there’s not a big difference between eating dessert with your meal or a couple of hours later. Even though you feel less full after a couple of hours, there’s likely to be enough food still making its way through your digestive system to cushion the blow. In fact, there’s something called the “second meal effect,” which means that a protein-rich meal can blunt the effect of carbohydrates eaten up to 4 hours later.
A protein-rich meal can blunt the effect of carbohydrates eaten up to 4 hours later.
Waiting a couple of hours may allow you to enjoy your dessert a bit more than you would immediately after the meal. And if we’re going to have dessert, let’s be sure to enjoy it! On the other hand, waiting until later may tempt you to eat more than you would if you were to eat it with your meal.
If you prefer to eat your dessert a couple of hours after dinner, just be sure the portion sizes stay reasonable. And if you want to enjoy dessert with your meal, you could eat a bit less of the main meal so that you have room for a bite or two of dessert without overfilling your stomach.
How to lessen post-meal blood sugar
Finally, whether or not you have diabetes, and whether or not you choose to have dessert or when you choose to enjoy it, there is a simple and pleasant way to lower post-meal blood sugar levels. Take a 15- to 30-minute walk around the neighborhood. It’ll help with digestion, keep those blood sugar levels steadier, and make even help you sleep a bit better.
Huicui Meng, Effect of prior meal macronutrient composition on postprandial glycemic responses and glycemic index and glycemic load value determinations American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017
Macdonald, I.A, A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes European Journal of Nutrition. 2016
Haxhi, J, Exercising for Metabolic Control: Is Timing Important? Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2013