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4 Markers Of Metabolic Health You Should Know

There are four markers of metabolic health you should monitor, like waist circumference, blood sugar levels, triglycerides, and cholesterol.

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You may be trying to boost your metabolic health, but it can be hard to tell if things are truly improving. In this article, we will talk about four markers you should keep track of to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. 

By Julia Zakrzewski, RD 

Your metabolic health refers to the different systems in your body that naturally keep you healthy. It includes your cardiovascular system, blood glucose management, metabolism, and kidney health. 

Different blood tests and body measurements can help assess your metabolic health status. In the article, you’ll learn what to look for and how to improve your results.  

1. Waist Circumference

Your waist circumference is measured with a classic tape measure. Some doctors will check and update your measurement at your annual check-up, but it varies per physician. You can easily do this assessment at home. 

Why Does Waist Circumference Matter For Metabolic Health?

A change in your waist circumference can be a precursor that your metabolic health could be changing. That is because the weight and visceral fatty tissues carried around the middle of your body can be hormonally active. 

Visceral fatty tissues lie deep under the skin and wrap around your organs.¹ Excess visceral fat exacerbates inflammatory responses and contributes to poor metabolic health. 

What Are The Target Numbers?

Different target ranges for ideal waist circumferences exist for different genders.²

  • Men should target <102 cm (40 inches). 
  • Women should target <88cm (35 inches). 

What Are the Health Risks? 

A high waist circumference increases your risk of developing: 

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure). 
  • Diabetes Mellitus. 
  • Hypercholesterolemia (high blood cholesterol). 
  • Joint and low back pain. 
  • Higher than normal uric acid levels. 

What Can Make Your Waist Circumference Increase? 

The most common reason why your waist circumference would increase is excessive calorie intake, combined with low energy output (or physical activity).¹

Another factor to consider is the genetic disposition of how your body carries weight. If your relatives carry weight on their abdomen your body will likely do the same. Your hormones can also influence how you carry weight. Women tend to be more susceptible to changes in weight related to hormonal fluctuations across the lifespan.  

What Can You Do To Improve Waist Circumference?

The best approach to managing your waist is to follow a nutritious balanced diet. To do this: 

  • Opt for whole unprocessed foods whenever possible. 
  • Increase your intake of vegetables and fresh fruit. 
  • Decrease dining out and make more meals at home. 
  • Limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, alcoholic mixed drinks and cocktails. 
  • Increase your level of physical activity. 

You can not control where your body will store fat. But, you can control your food choices throughout the day. 

2. Blood Glucose Levels

Your blood glucose levels can indicate how efficiently your body is able to clear sugars out of your bloodstream.  

What Are The Targets For Blood Glucose Levels? 

The current CDC guidelines for blood sugars indicate:⁴

  • Healthy numbers before eating should be 80-130mg/dL. 
  • Two hours after a meal sugars should be <180mg/dL.

What Are The Risks Of High Blood Sugars? 

High blood sugars can damage vessels that supply blood to vital organs.⁵ This can increase your risk of: 

  • Developing type two diabetes. 
  • Heart disease.
  • Stroke.
  • Vision impairment.
  • Nerve damage. 

What Makes Blood Glucose Levels Rise? 

A mix of lifestyle and genetic factors can contribute to high blood glucose levels: 

  • Eating ultra-processed foods (white flour products, deep-fried foods, sodas, juices, candies, baked goods, flavored yogurts, and other dairy products). 
  • Sedentary lifestyle. 
  • Family history of high blood sugars. 
  • Chronic stress. 
  • Weight gain. 
  • Certain medications (corticosteroids). 
  • Side effects of another disease (pancreatic illnesses, different types of cancers). 

It is unlikely that one single factor will influence your blood sugars. All of these elements have compounding effects on your glucose levels.  

What Can You Do To Improve Blood Glucose Levels?

Start by focusing on your diet and physical activity: 

  • Decrease your intake of refined carbohydrates (sweetened beverages, baked goods, anything deep fried, candies, flavored dairy products). 
  • Opt for fiber-rich items instead (unprocessed fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and beans or legumes).
  • Add physical activity to your routine. 
  • Consider using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to deepen your understanding of how your blood sugars are changing throughout the day and how your body responds to different foods. 

Lifestyle changes can have a great influence on your blood sugars. Eating less white sugar can be a helpful place to start, but following the other actionable steps can help you achieve even better results. 

3. Triglycerides

Your triglycerides are a type of blood cholesterol. Your triglyceride numbers can only be measured in a formal blood test completed at a lab. 

Why Do Triglycerides Matter For Metabolic Health? 

Your triglycerides are packaged envelopes of glucose that have been converted into fat. The energy-dense molecules float in your bloodstream and are readily available in case your body needs fuel. 

Exercise and movement will help you use the fuel. But, if you are sedentary and consume more calories than you need, your triglyceride levels can rise beyond healthy limits. 

Biology and genetics play a significant role in lipid metabolization, too. It is common for people who have a larger waist circumference to also have higher levels of triglycerides.⁶

What Are The Target Numbers For Triglycerides?

The target range for triglyceride levels are:⁷ 

  • Normal levels should fall below 150mg/dL. 
  • Medicine should be prescribed if the number is above 200mg/dL.

Risk of elevated triglycerides 

Elevated triglyceride levels increase your risk of the following conditions:⁸

  • Pancreatitis. 
  • Hardening of your arteries.
  • Increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

What Makes Triglycerides Increase?

A mixture of poor diet and lifestyle choices can raise your triglyceride levels. Some examples include:⁸ 

  • Certain medications. 
  • Excessive alcohol intake. 
  • Uncontrolled diabetes. 
  • Sedentary lifestyle. 
  • Consuming large portion sizes of refined carbs (white flour, juices, pops, most processed foods).

What Can You Do To Improve Triglyceride Levels?

If you drink alcohol, consider decreasing your intake. Long-term moderation is recommended to maintain healthy triglyceride levels. You can also: 

  • Decrease your portion sizes of refined carbohydrates.
  • Stay away from sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • A modest weight loss of 5-10% can help lower your levels too.
  • Follow the Mediterranean diet.⁹

The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, healthy unsaturated fats, and can help decrease your triglyceride levels. Learn more about how to follow this diet to support your triglyceride levels and other metabolic health markers. 

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4. LDL/HDL Cholesterol Levels

Your blood cholesterol levels are called serum lipids. Triglycerides are part of your lipids, and so are high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

Why Do LDL And HDL Matter To Metabolic Health?

For a long time, your blood cholesterol levels were measured and used to assess your risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Helping people move towards a lower LDL score was a priority because LDL cholesterol contributes to the hardening of your arteries and plaque build-up, also known as atherosclerosis.¹⁰ Hardened arteries increase your risk of blockages, stroke, and decreased blood flow to vital organs. 

HDL was believed to be the healthy form of blood cholesterol that might have heart-protecting benefits, but research teams are questioning if cholesterol levels are a reliable indicator of cardiovascular health.¹¹

The current leading organizations in the field stand by the recommendation that LDL should remain low, while HDL should be high.¹² 

What Are The Target Numbers for LDL and HDL cholesterol?

The ranges for cholesterol will change across your lifetime:¹³

  • Ages 20-39 should aim for LDL cholesterol <160mg/dL. 
  • Ages 40-75 should aim for LDL cholesterol <190mg/dL. 
  • Men should aim for HDL between 45-70mg/dL.
  • Women should aim for HDL between 50-90mg/DL. 

Your cholesterol can give your doctor a snapshot of your health. They should use your blood test information to complete a cardiovascular disease risk calculator to better interpret your numbers. 

The risk formula is more comprehensive because it captures your family history, smoking habits, age, gender, other diagnoses, and blood pressure.¹⁴  

What Makes Cholesterol Levels Unhealthy? 

According to the American Heart Association, several elements within your lifestyle can lead to rising cholesterol numbers: 

  • Smoking (including secondhand smoke).
  • Lack of physical activity. 
  • A diet high in ultra-processed foods. 
  • Being overweight and obese is a risk factor. 

What Can You Do To Improve Cholesterol Levels?

Similar to the other markers, you should prioritize lifestyle changes first: 

  • Quitting smoking. 
  • A minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise is recommended on a weekly basis. 
  • Include more soluble fiber in your diet (oatmeal, soft fruits, whole grains, barley).¹⁵ 
  • A 5-10% weight loss may help.¹⁶ 
  • Medications.  

Any changes or trends in your numbers over time can provide deeper insight into how your health is evolving. 

5. Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure measures the force and effort your heart exerts to pump blood into your arteries.

Why Does Blood Pressure Matter For Metabolic Health?

It is normal for your blood pressure to fluctuate throughout the day. However, when blood pressure elevates and stays high, it puts strain on your vessels and your heart. 

High blood pressure, known as hypertension, can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. The CDC estimates that as of 2020, 47% of Americans have hypertension.¹⁷

What Are The Target Numbers For Blood Pressure? 

A blood pressure reading is presented as a fraction.¹⁸ The top number is systolic and should be below 120mmHg. It captures the pressure in your arteries as your heart beats. 

The bottom number is diastolic and should be below 80mmHg. It refers to the pressure in the heart as it rests between beats. During this time the atriums will fill back up with blood. At the next beat, blood is pushed into the arteries and the cycle continues. 

What Makes Blood Pressure Rise To Unhealthy Levels? 

Many people don’t realize they have high blood pressure until they check their numbers. Factors that can contribute to high blood pressure include: 

  • Eating a diet low in fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Relying on ultra-processed foods. 
  • Smoking. 
  • Sedentary lifestyle.
  • High-stress environments including the workplace or at home. 
  • Genetic history. 
  • Certain medications. 

What Can You Do To Improve Blood Pressure? 

To improve blood pressure you could:¹⁹

  • Follow the dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet.
  • Include regular physical activity. 
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Including potassium-rich fruits and vegetables in your diet (bananas, sweet potatoes, apricots, oranges, avocado). 
  • Reducing sodium intake can help some people. 
  • Learn stress management techniques. 
  • Medications.

Caffeinated products can temporarily raise your blood pressure. If you are checking your numbers at home, try to measure your levels before drinking your daily cup of coffee. 

What Explains the Low Rates of Metabolic Health in Americans?

Compared to other parts of the world, the low metabolic health rates persist across America. There are several reasons that contribute to these low rates: 

  • Sedentary lifestyles. 
  • A diet high in refined and processed foods. 
  • Large portion sizes. 
  • Fast food is often cheaper and more affordable than fresh foods. 
  • Greater prevalence of obesity. 

A study published In 2019 indicated that only 19.9% of Americans were Metabolically healthy²⁰. High blood pressure plagues half the population and needs to be prioritized.Unmanaged hypertension can lead to heart disease and stroke, which both have high mortality rates in the US.¹⁶ 

How to Begin Improving Your Markers of Metabolic Health

There is a ton of information in this post and your brain may be swimming trying to figure out where to start. The good news is that the changes you make to target one area of your health will benefit many others too. 

More physical activity helps to lower blood sugars, blood pressure, and cholesterol. If you are not already active, start by focusing on this area of your health. 

If you are already active, focus on increasing your intake of fiber-rich foods. Include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes throughout your week.

Quitting smoking is one of the best choices you can make for your metabolic health. If you need support consider reaching out to your health care team. 

Although it can be tempting to go on a ‘health-kick’ overnight and change everything about your life, try to pursue a more sustainable approach. Your healthy habits should be repeatable and fit in easily with your lifestyle. 

If you need more information on how to improve your diet and metabolic health, check out the rest of the Signos blog now.

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References

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About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a background in primary care, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education. She has been practicing dietetics for four years.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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