Why Metabolic Health Is a Good Starting Place for Weight Management

Your motivation to lose weight is personal and important. But what if you make healthy changes and you don’t experience any weight loss? Are there still meaningful health benefits even if the scale doesn’t change?

woman eating a healthy lunch at her kitchen island

You want to make lifestyle changes that will deliver the greatest impact on your health. Focusing on weight management is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece, or even the best one, to improve your health.  

This article gives you actionable steps to take, beyond focusing on weight loss, that can improve your metabolic health. 

What Is Metabolic Health?

Metabolic health refers to how well your body can protect itself against diseases without relying on medications. There are several systems in your body that contribute to your metabolic health

Examples include your cardiovascular system, weight management (also referred to as metabolism), and blood sugar control. 

How Metabolic Health and Weight Are Connected

For most people, there is an existing link between your weight and metabolic health: you have a healthy weight, then you must be metabolically healthy. The same is true in reverse, if you are overweight, you must not be metabolically healthy. Right?

Does Weight Predict Metabolic Health? 

Yes, weight can be a predictor of metabolic health. There is evidence to suggest people who are overweight or obese are more likely to have poorer levels of metabolic health.1 Poor metabolic health includes a higher risk of developing: 

  • Type two diabetes.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Different types of cancer. 
  • Kidney disease. 
  • Hormone changes, such as insulin resistance.2

But, not everybody who lives in a larger body will experience these health outcomes. Likewise, a healthy weight can’t determine if someone is at risk of or has any of these conditions.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/insulin-resistance-vs-prediabetes">insulin resistance and prediabetes</a>.</p>

How Does Metabolic Health Affect Weight?

Changes to your weight can have an impact on your metabolic health. There many medical diagnoses linked to weight gain, such as: 

  • Cushing's syndrome can arise from excess cortisol production, a hormone that has fat-storing properties 
  • Undiagnosed hypothyroidism3 
  • Depression, which contributes to emotional eating4 
  • Menopause5 
  • Prescription medications including antidepressants, corticosteroids, antipsychotics, and insulin treatments

If you rely on medications to manage your health and would like to lose weight, speak to your physician about weight-neutral options. They may adjust your treatment or recommend seeing a nutritionist to manage your weight. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/what-is-cortisol">how cortisol affects weight and health</a>.</p>

Do You Need to Lose Weight to Improve Metabolic Health?

Weight loss may improve metabolic function in people who are overweight or living with obesity. The CDC states that a 5-10% weight loss can be enough to see positive changes in most people.6

Some people will make healthier choices in an effort to lose weight, but they may not see any changes. Although the weight is not going down, they are still likely gaining health benefits through their healthy actions. 

Other parameters of your health that can be improved by maintaining healthy habits include:1

If you start to develop healthier habits and the scale isn’t budging, try tracking some of these other health markers. Improvements, even small ones, in any of areas is a sign you are on the right track to improving your health. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/foods-for-mental-health">foods that support mental health</a>.</p>

a heavyset woman walking on a pier
Shifting the focus from weight to health can significantly improve quality of life.

Can You Improve Metabolic Health Without Losing Weight?

Here are a few examples of how you can improve your health without focusing on weight loss: 

  • Make more meals at home. You will save money and have full control over the ingredients and portion sizes.
  • Eat regularly throughout the day. If possible, avoid arriving to your meals famished. You are more likely to overeat if you wait too long between meals. 
  • Include fiber-rich foods in all meals and snacks. Fiber helps with satiety, blood sugar management, and gut health.
  • Increase your level of physical activity. Include a mixture of cardio-based exercise and strength training. 
  • Stop smoking. Cigarettes and vape products increase your risk of various health conditions and heavy smokers are the most likely to experience metabolic diseases.7,8
  • Manage your stress levels. Chronic high stress contributes to inflammation in the body, which worsens metabolic health. 
  • Remain hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. You can also add sugar-free electrolytes to your water to make sure you are getting the minerals you need.  
  • Attend annual checkups with your physician. The surest way to remain healthy is to be proactive. By taking the steps above and keping up with regular physical exams, you can help prevent, or minimize, illness. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read about </strong> <a href="/blog/high-fiber-low-carb-foods">the best high-fiber, low-carb foods for blood sugar</a>.</p>

Why Improving Metabolic Health Is a Smart Way to Approach Weight Management

There are several reasons why looking at the bigger picture of your health is a great place to start: 

  • It’s encouraging to know that one change, like increasing exercise, can lead to several positive health outcomes. 
  • It helps you stay motivated to improve your health, regardless of what the scale says. 
  • It can be a welcome and gentle approach to health management, without any guilt-tripping or feelings of failure. 

Remember, your weight is a small piece of your overall health. There are many other parts that serve as indicators of positive change. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read about </strong> <a href="/blog/diet-culture-weight-bias">how diet culture creates weight bias</a>.</p>

Positives of Focusing on Metabolic Health

Decreasing the pressure of losing weight can provide some people with an immediate sense of relief. In 2016 the CDC published survey results indicating that at any given time, 49.1% of Americans had tried a weight loss diet in the last month.9

If people were successfully losing weight, the number of dieters would decrease, but it hasn’t.10Understandably, people may feel frustrated or stuck after years of trying different diets without seeing any results. People may still want to lose weight, but not seeing any progress can be discouraging and lead to non-compliance with their care plan.

Shifting the focus away from weight can be a refreshing and welcomed change. If you focus on other parameters, like the markers of good metabolic health, you can start to see that your efforts are having a significant impact. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read about </strong> <a href="/blog/body-positivity-weight-loss">body positive weight loss strategies</a>.</p>

Negatives of "Must Lose Pounds" Approach

You are not alone if you have felt like you must lose weight to be healthy. You may have already experienced the blowback of scenarios like: 

  • Skipping meals for the sake of keeping calorie intake low.
  • Cutting out foods and entire food groups (risking nutritional deficiencies). 
  • Losing lean muscle mass instead of fat mass.
  • Missing your favorite foods. 
  • Developing an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors.
  • Other aspects of health and wellness (sleep, energy levels, cognitive abilities, mental health) suffer because you are exclusively focused on weight loss.

Losing weight has been advertised as a cure-all method to improve your life. But scientifically speaking, we know that weight loss alone is not going to guarantee you a clean bill of health. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/food-bias">how food bias is promoted by diet culture</a>.</p>

a woman eating a salad in standing up in the kitchen
Calorie restriction can backfire by tanking energy levels; eating for your health is more sustainable.

How to Start Approaching Weight Management from a Metabolic Health Perspective

Write down the circumstances in your current lifestyle that you like, and then list areas you want to improve. Use the “room for improvement” list to help you decide which changes you want to start making first. Some ideas include: 

There are no wrong or right places to start; the only thing that matters is starting somewhere. If making a commitment feels overwhelming, consider creating smaller goals that will help you reach your ultimate goal.

This could mean going for a five-minute walk instead of ten. Or, perhaps you bring lunches to work for only two days of the week instead of every day. Every week or two, try to increase the length of your walk or number of lunches you bring to work until you meet your goal.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/neat-weight-loss">non-exercise activity thermogenesis</a>.</p>

Metabolic Health and Weight: Final Takeaways

Your metabolic health includes all the different systems that keep you healthy. Weight loss may improve your metabolic health, but it is not the only approach you should consider. 

Including more variety in your diet, prioritizing high-fiber unprocessed foods, and eating at regular intervals throughout the day can help stabilize your blood sugar and improve your health.

Incorporating regular movement and exercise will have more impact on your health than weight loss alone. Choose activities that you enjoy and stay consistent. Small amounts of daily movement can make a big impact. 

Off the scale, there are other ways to check if your metabolic health is improving. You could record your blood pressure, complete annual bloodwork to measure your cholesterol levels, and use a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to track your blood sugar. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Find more tips about </strong> <a href="/blog/start-living-a-healthy-lifestyle">starting to live a healthy lifestyle</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Somi, M. H., Nikniaz, Z., Ostadrahimi, A., Eftekhar Sadat, A. T., & Faramarzi, E. (2019). Is normal body mass index a good indicator of metabolic health in Azar cohort population? Journal of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Research, 11(1), 53–60. https://doi.org/10.15171/jcvtr.2019.09 
  2. Wondmkun, Y. T. (2020). <p>Obesity, Insulin Resistance, and Type 2 Diabetes: Associations and Therapeutic Implications</p> Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy, Volume 13, 3611–3616. https://doi.org/10.2147/dmso.s275898
  3. Wilson, S. A., Stem, L. A., & Bruehlman, R. D. (2021). Hypothyroidism: Diagnosis and Treatment. American family physician, 103(10), 605–613. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33983002/ 
  4. Konttinen, H., van Strien, T., Männistö, S., Jousilahti, P., & Haukkala, A. (2019). Depression, emotional eating and long-term weight changes: a population-based prospective study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0791-8 
  5. Davis, S. R., Castelo-Branco, C., Chedraui, P., Lumsden, M. A., Nappi, R. E., Shah, D., & Villaseca, P. (2012). Understanding weight gain at menopause. Climacteric, 15(5), 419–429. https://doi.org/10.3109/13697137.2012.707385 
  6. Healthy Weight Loss. (2022, June 3). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved August 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html#:%7E:text=Even%20a%20modest%20weight%20loss,blood%20cholesterol%2C%20and%20blood%20sugars.&text=For%20example%2C%20if%20you%20weigh,weight%20down%20to%20190%20pounds
  7. Health Effects of Smoking. (2020, July 13). American Lung Association. Retrieved August 2022, from https://www.lung.org/quit-smoking/smoking-facts/health-effects/smoking 
  8. dos Santos Gouveia, T., Buriola Trevisan, I., Pereira Santos, C., Spolador De Alencar Silva, B., Mara Cipulo Ramos, E., Proença, M., & Ramos, D. (2020). Smoking history: relationships with inflammatory markers, metabolic markers, body composition, muscle strength, and cardiopulmonary capacity in current smokers. Jornal Brasileiro de Pneumologia, 46(5), e20180353. https://doi.org/10.36416/1806-3756/e20180353 
  9. Products - Data Briefs - Number 313 - July 2018. (2018, July). Centre For Diseases Control. Retrieved August 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db313.htm 
  10. International Food Information Council. (2022, May 18). 2022 Food & Health Survey: Diets, Food Prices, Stress and the Power of Gen Z. Retrieved August 2022, from https://ific.org/media-information/press-releases/2022-food-health-survey/#:%7E:text=A%20New%20Era%20of%20Eating,by%20consumers%20under%20age%2050

About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski Headshot
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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