You aren't alone if you haven’t heard of “metabolic health” before. It’s a term that is used to describe how healthy you are, based on specific metabolic parameters. Many people think being healthy is only related to their weight, but metabolic health is much more than the number you see on your scale or BMI chart.
Being metabolically healthy is key to reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
What Does it Mean to be Metabolically Healthy?
Metabolic health is more than just a number on the scale. Most health professionals view metabolic health as having ideal levels of blood glucose, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides as well as a healthy waist circumference and blood pressure - but the kicker is, they mean reaching those levels without the help of medications.
<p class="pro-tip">You can read more about Metabolic Health here</p>
Researchers recently looked at data from the 2009 - 2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) as a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States. They found only one in eight American adults over the age of 20 were metabolically healthy.1
One interesting result from this study was that some of the participants who were at a healthy weight (according to BMI), did not meet the criteria for good metabolic health.1
Outward appearances can often be misleading.
But, what about people who are overweight? A couple of studies have looked at this, and some people who are overweight are metabolically healthy.
The true indicators of metabolic health are blood glucose, triglyceride and lipid levels, and blood pressure. 1, 2, 3, 4
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn these </strong> <a href="/blog/signs-metabolic-health-out-of-balance">six warning signs of metabolic imbalance</a> and learn more about <a href="/blog/how-to-measure-metabolic-health">how to measure metabolic health</a>.</p>
Ways to Approach Your Metabolic Health
What are the best ways to achieve metabolic health and reduce your risk of chronic disease? Can you improve your own metabolic health?
The best place to start is to take a good look at your lifestyle.
- What are you eating every day?
- How often do you exercise?
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- What do you do to help manage stress?
Each of these impact your overall health, but directly impact your metabolic health.
Best Foods to Achieve Metabolic Health
One of the most significant contributors to metabolic health is the food we eat. It means focusing on more than eating low-calorie foods or high-protein foods to keep your weight down. It means eating a good variety of food every week that supports healthy blood glucose and lipid levels, reduces insulin resistance, and reduces your risk of chronic disease.
Food provides a variety of nutrients that support metabolic health including macronutrients, like protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Micronutrients including vitamins and minerals are also important for maintaining our health and reducing our risk of disease. But is there more to it than that?
As we learn more about nutrition and health, yes, there is a lot more to being healthy than eating the minimum amounts of certain foods every day. Each of the foods and groups of foods described below provides different nutrients and contributes to our overall health. They all work in different ways and we are still learning how they may interact and support each other. Mix it up, try new flavors, and get some variety in - it really is the spice of life.
Here are a few of the best types of foods to eat regularly to help improve your metabolic health.
Fruits are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols that have been associated with reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. These nutrients protect against the harmful effects of inflammation. Long-term inflammation is a classic symptom of metabolic syndrome and can lead to tissue damage, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and plaque buildup.
You’ve heard the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well, there is something to that but it applies to more than just apples. All types of fruits reduce inflammation, support healthy blood pressure and blood sugar, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Choose from apples, berries, grapes, melons, bananas, stone fruits, and citrus fruits and pick a couple to enjoy every day. 5
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading about </strong> <a href="/blog/fiber-for-metabolic-health">fiber and metabolic health</a>.</p>
Like fruit, vegetables are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols. They are also rich in many minerals like potassium, magnesium, and calcium that have an impact on blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and body weight.6
Whether you choose leafy greens, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables, or starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas, vegetables are rich in a variety of nutrients and should be enjoyed throughout the day.
“Whole grain” means large portions of the bran, germ, and endosperm remain in the product where refined grains are stripped of these healthy, fibrous components.
Whole grains contain both soluble and insoluble fibers. Soluble fibers, found in oats, oat bran, and barley pull water into the grain which helps reduce cholesterol absorption and lowers blood sugar levels. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to your stool, increasing transit time and helping to reduce your appetite.7
Types of whole grains to include in your diet include oats, whole-grain bread, brown and wild rice, barley, and ancient grains like farro, spelt, and amaranth among others.
<p class="pro-tip">Read more about how oatmeal helps with weight loss</p>
Legumes and pulses (pulses are the seeds of a legume plant) contain protein, fiber and polyphenols that have been shown to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and help support gastrointestinal and brain health. They are also low on the glycemic index making them a perfect addition to many eating plans for weight loss and blood sugar control.8
A study with women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) found that those who ate 2 legume-rich meals a day over 16 weeks had lower blood pressure, triglyceride, and LDL levels and improved HDL and insulin sensitivity levels. The improvements remained 12 months after the completion of the study.9
Beans including garbanzo beans, kidney beans, white beans, split peas, and lentils are included in the legume category and recommended as part of a low glycemic eating plan.
Seafood, including fish and shellfish, are lean proteins rich in polyunsaturated fats like omega 3 fatty acids, selenium, Vitamin D, and iron. Higher intakes of fatty fish have been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and recently associated with brain health and reduced inflammation.
A number of studies throughout the world have documented that increasing fish intake by one serving a week has benefits on metabolic health.10
A study in Korea found men who ate fish daily had an almost 60% reduced risk of developing metabolic syndrome than those who ate it less than once a week.11 Another study in France showed a significant reduction in risk of insulin resistance with increased fish consumption as well as a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.12
Nuts and Seeds
A recent large study in Finland found men who had two or more servings of nuts a week had lower rates of metabolic syndrome, lower blood pressure, lower triglyceride levels, and better blood sugar control.13
Dairy products including yogurt, milk, and kefir are rich in calcium, and potassium and some contain vitamin D all of which are important for blood pressure management and bone strength. Fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, and fermented cheese support our immune system and keep our GI tract healthy.
While there have been some questions about whether dairy products cause an inflammatory reaction in some people, research has not supported this. Dairy products have been widely consumed in many countries with low rates of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease and are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet.
A recent large systematic review found that both healthy individuals and those with metabolic syndrome and diabetes did not have any inflammatory effects following the consumption of dairy products. Instead, significant anti-inflammatory effects were seen in all populations.14
Including a couple of servings of dairy products a day, including low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese is important for helping to reduce the risk of metabolic disease.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/cheese-metabolic-health">cheese and metabolic health</a> and <a href="/blog/the-8-best-foods-for-metabolic-health">the best types of food for metabolic health</a>.</p>
Exercising for Metabolic Health
Just as important as food and eating habits are to achieving metabolic health, exercise is another key component. Most health-focused organizations like the American Heart Association recommends that all Americans get 150 minutes, or two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week to reduce the risk of metabolic diseases.15 Unfortunately, most Americans are far from reaching that goal, with less than 5% able to achieve it regularly.
According to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, moderate physical activity can reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, improve sleep, reduce anxiety levels and improve brain function.16
What does 150 minutes of moderate physical activity look like? It could be a brisk 30-minute walk 5 days a week, taking a bike ride, going dancing, or running. If you haven’t been active, start slowly and build up to 30 minutes a day.
What Other Lifestyle Habits Impact Metabolic Health?
Are there other things beyond eating and exercise that can affect your overall metabolic health? Most definitely and the most important are getting enough good quality sleep, managing stress, and minimizing your alcohol intake.
Sleep and sleep quality have been getting a lot of attention recently. While chronic diseases have been on the upswing in the United States, the amount of sleep we are getting is diminishing. Over half of us get less than seven hours a night and the link between lack of sleep contributing to an increase in metabolic disease has been made.
Inadequate or insufficient sleep has been associated with weight gain, a decrease in glucose tolerance as well as a reduction in insulin sensitivity.17 In a small study of healthy men, restricted sleep by just 1 to 3 hours saw significantly increased fasting insulin levels compared to times of regular sleep duration.18
Chronic poor sleep patterns or disrupted sleep can also cause a rise in cortisol levels which may also lead to weight gain and insulin resistance.19
There is still much to tease out on the relationship between sleep and metabolic health, but getting adequate and good quality sleep can only help you have more energy and focus. This alone can help you have more time and energy to create healthy meals and work in exercise.
What does stress have to do with your metabolic health? When we are under stress, our body releases a hormone called cortisol. One of its functions is to release blood sugar from our liver to help us fight the stressor. It’s the fight or flight response that keeps us safe. But too much stress, or being under chronic stress, leads to excess cortisol production.
Some cortisol is good as it keeps sugar in our bloodstream, feeding our organs. But too much may cause your blood sugar to fluctuate widely, increase your blood pressure and lipid levels, and lead to insulin resistance and weight gain.20
You can read more about how to manage stress and cortisol levels here.
What Does a Metabolically Healthy Day Look Like?
How can you improve your metabolic health? The best way is to start gradually incorporating healthier habits into your day. Take a look at what you are eating and see if there is room for a change or two.
Pick one or two things to work on at a time and build healthy habits you can stick with. Build up over time and you’ll slowly start noticing changes in how you feel and may see your numbers go down. If you have one, you can monitor your progress with your CGM to see how each change affects you.
Here are a few thoughts of things you can start incorporating into your day to help improve your metabolic health.
Light Exercise Before Breakfast
Start your day with some exercise. A brisk walk first thing in the morning is a great way to kick off a busy day. Maybe it’s a quick walk with your dog - they make a great exercise machine! Or a walk with friends in the neighborhood. Having exercise buddies, whether human or canine can keep you motivated and moving.
Next up, a protein-filled breakfast. Aim for foods that are rich in protein and fiber to fill you up and add in some healthy fats and good antioxidant-rich fruits or vegetables. And yes, you can certainly have vegetables for breakfast!
Here are some ideas for a metabolically healthy breakfast:
- Greek yogurt with berries or kiwi and topped with homemade granola.
- A berry smoothie made with kefir and chia seeds for some extra omega-3s.
- Whole-grain toast with avocado or ricotta cheese, and some sliced fruit or a little smoked salmon.
- Scrambled eggs with shredded mixed greens, onions, and mushrooms.
For lunch, or your mid-day meal, aim for at least a serving or two of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruit along with protein and some healthy fats to keep it balanced and filling.
Here are some ideas for a metabolically healthy lunch:
- Green salad filled with leafy greens like baby kale, spinach, or romaine lettuce, topped with salmon or tuna and some microgreens.
- A hearty grain bowl made with quinoa or farro, fruit, sliced peppers, or leftover vegetables from the previous night’s dinner. Add some chickpeas and walnuts for some protein, fiber, and healthy fat.
- Whole-grain flatbread topped with a white bean spread and arugula
- Vegetable soup filled with greens, beans, brown rice, and colorful veggies.
Mid-afternoon is the perfect time for a snack. It keeps hunger pangs at bay, helps stabilize your blood sugar, and is a great way to add some healthy foods you may otherwise be missing.
Here are some ideas for a metabolically healthy afternoon snack:
- A small dish of nuts and dried fruit is an easy one to make ahead.
- Hummus with veggies and whole-grain crackers,
- Lettuce wraps filled with lentils and quinoa or leftover chicken or salmon with a drizzle of soy sauce or miso dressing.
Wrap up the day with a quick and easy dinner. Focus on plants, but don’t forget the protein for balance.
But most important: find foods you enjoy.
Here are a few metabolically healthy dinner ideas to get you started:
- Roasted salmon with a side of roasted veggies. Roasting the vegetables brings the natural sugar to the top and caramelizes it for added flavor.
- Cook shrimp in tomato sauce and toss it with some whole grain or chickpea pasta for a quick and hearty dinner.
- Veggie burger with sweet potato fries and grilled veggies.
- Sheet pan pork chops with pesto and vegetables to make a quick meal and easy cleanup.
Small Changes Can Help You Get Started
Achieving metabolic health will have long-term benefits for your overall health and reduce your risk factors for many chronic diseases. You'll feel better and have more energy to do the things you want to do every day.
There is a lot here so don’t worry if all of this seems overwhelming. Just take it one step at a time; making little changes daily can have a big impact on your metabolic health.
- Try a new fruit or vegetable every week
- Make one plant-based dinner a week
- Add 10 minutes of exercise to your day each week to gradually build up your strength.
It’s time to view your health as more than a number on your bathroom scale.
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