Only 12.2% of Americans enjoy optimal metabolic health. This means that 87.8% of the 8,721 adults sampled from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data didn’t meet current guidelines for blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, and waist circumference.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The modern diet, sedentary lifestyle, and disregard for sleep are bad news for metabolic health.
On the bright side, the lifestyle factors that govern metabolic health are largely within your control. And when you take control of your metabolism, you position yourself for a longer, better life.
Today, you’ll learn practical tips to do just that. First, though, let’s unpack this commonly misunderstood term.
What Is Metabolic Health?
Your metabolic health is a snapshot of how your body manages energy. It dictates, for example, how your body uses, stores, and partitions fat, carbohydrates, and other food-based nutrients.
Blood sugar (blood glucose) is the main clinical marker of metabolic health. Chronic high blood sugar levels are the hallmark of diabetes, and they indicate a dysfunction with the hormone insulin called insulin resistance.
Here’s how insulin should work:
- You eat
- Blood sugar rises as you digest carbohydrates from the meal
- Your pancreas secretes insulin in response to rising blood sugar
- Insulin helps shuttle blood sugar into muscle and liver cells
- Blood sugar and insulin return to normal levels 1–3 hours later
But when insulin resistance is present, steps 4 and 5 go awry. Insulin can’t push excess sugar into cells—perhaps because they’re over-saturated with glucose—so blood sugar stays elevated. Insulin levels stay high too, which drives runaway fat storage. This is the path to metabolic disorders like metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
The Signs of Poor Metabolic Health
Though blood sugar is the key metabolic marker to track, you (and your clinician) also shouldn’t neglect blood pressure, triglycerides, HDL, insulin, and waist circumference. Together, these markers give you a better snapshot of your metabolism.
Along these lines, The International Diabetes Foundation maintains that a person has metabolic syndrome if they meet three or more of these criteria:
- Fasting blood sugar levels above or equal to 100 mg/dL
- Blood pressure above or equal to 130/85 mmHg
- Elevated waist circumference (criteria vary by population)
- HDL-C over 40 mg/dL (men) or under 50 mg/dL (women)
- Triglycerides above or equal to 150 mg/dL
Why care about these designations? Because when someone has metabolic syndrome, they’re at higher risk for heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is the culmination of metabolic dysfunction. It’s diagnosed when fasting blood sugar surpasses 125 mg/dL, and HbA1c (average blood sugar) surpasses 6.4%. These high blood sugar levels (called hyperglycemia) can cause blood vessel damage, oxidative stress, inflammation, and the problems with insulin we discussed earlier.
T2D is a four-alarm fire, metabolically speaking. But long before the fire erupts, the embers start to crackle.
Causes of Poor Metabolic Health
If you’re looking for causes of the current metabolic crisis, start with diet and lifestyle. Diet and lifestyle changes explain how US diabetes rates have increased sevenfold over the past fifty years.
Genes have stayed the same, but behaviors have not. People are now eating more, sleeping less, and moving less frequently than before. The sedentary desk job, the high-sugar diet, the “fourth meal,” and the stress of overwork drive poor metabolic health.
And it’s not just adults. US childhood obesity rates have ballooned to 20%, compared to 5% in the 1970s. A young metabolism can’t always overcome an unhealthy lifestyle.
Sugar may be the worst offender. The average added sugar intake in the US is 15 teaspoons per day, mostly from liquid sources. As sugar intake rises, metabolic health falls.
The silver lining is that, unlike genetics, lifestyle factors are easily modifiable.
How to Enhance Metabolic Health
Improving metabolic health starts with diet and lifestyle mods. Here are the big ones.
Added sugar fuels the metabolic four-alarm fire. Reducing your sugar intake lowers your risk of insulin resistance and other metabolic problems.
That’s the easy win. But for stubborn cases of high blood sugar, more strict carb restriction may be the ticket.
One review on dietary interventions found low-carb diets to have the most evidence for improving blood sugar regulation for people with diabetes. It makes sense because carbs digest to glucose, and glucose ends up in your blood.
Other research suggests that a very low-carb ketogenic diet can reverse type 2 diabetes and help folks drop their insulin meds. Soon, keto may be a standard-of-care recommendation for T2D.
All major health authorities recommend exercise for type 2 diabetes. Regular exercise lowers blood sugar, reduces heart disease risk, and aids in weight loss.
The magic number is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise weekly for research-backed benefits. Don’t neglect strength and high-intensity interval training, though, because both improve metabolic health too.
Adequate sleep (7–9 hours per night) enhances insulin function and regulates hunger hormones. Short sleep, conversely, turns you into a ravenous, insulin-resistant creature who snacks more than your future self would like.
#4: Stress reduction
The fight-or-flight stress response includes a blood sugar spike for quick, “run-from-that-grizzly-bear” energy. Mitigate these unwanted spikes with exercise, meditation, and avoiding your email inbox during non-work hours.
#5: Intermittent fasting
Eating less frequently helps your metabolism oscillate more smoothly between burning sugar and burning fat. This metabolic flexibility is a crucial feature of good metabolic health.
#6: Blood sugar reducing compounds
Many compounds—metformin, berberine, cinnamon, amino acids, chromium, etc.—can influence metabolic health. Let’s talk about the last two.
Multiple randomized controlled trials have found that a specific blend of five amino acids (leucine, lysine, valine, isoleucine, and threonine) plus the mineral chromium reduces post-meal blood sugar by an average of 25% in overweight (but otherwise healthy) people. Researchers believe this effect occurs because:
- The amino acids stimulate early insulin release and slow gastric emptying
- The chromium improves insulin sensitivity
It’s a powerful one-two punch for metabolic health.
Staying Metabolically Healthy
Most people don’t enjoy optimal metabolic health, but since you’ve read this far, you’re not “most people.” You’re you, and that gives you an advantage. You’re the kind of person who keeps tinkering and learning until you’re moving in the right direction.
Pick one or two lifestyle factors above and make a small change today. Your future self will thank you.
Author: Brian Stanton is the author of Keto Intermittent Fasting and a leading authority on health and nutrition. Follow Brian’s work by visiting his website at www.brianjstanton.com.