What Is Metabolic Health, And How Is It Measured?
Optimizing metabolic health is top-of-mind for a growing number of people. The good news is metabolic health (and your metabolism) can be improved through lifestyle choices—even if they're currently not stellar.
Before we dive right into tips for improving metabolic health, let's parse out exactly what encompasses metabolic health (because it’s more than what you’re likely thinking), and how it differs from metabolism.
What is metabolic health?
“It's important to note that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of metabolic health,” says Maddie Pasquariello, M.S., RDN. And some clinicians and scientists even view metabolic health as the absence of metabolic concerns (which isn’t frustratingly unspecific, nor does it define what optimal metabolic health is).
But in general, there are five main factors measured via a blood test or through a clinical evaluation that go into evaluating a person’s metabolic health.
- Excess abdominal fat: A waist circumference of 40 inches or more for men and 35 inches or more for women
- High triglyceride levels: 150 mg/dL or higher
- High fasting blood glucose (sugar): 100 mg/dL or higher
- High blood pressure: Greater than (or equal to) 130/85 mmHg or higher
- Low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels: 40 mg/dL or less (men) and 50 mg/dL or less (women)
How can you tell if you have poor metabolic health?
It’s easy to make assumptions about your metabolic health from stepping on a scale. But there’s a reason weight—and BMI for that matter—are left off of the list above.
“The subjects of weight and BMI often come up in the discussion of metabolic health, and while weight loss can improve metabolic health, and thus isn't counted out entirely, it's [weight] not considered to be as much of a determining factor as it once was,” says Pasquariello. “It has been shown that people can be metabolically healthy even if they are considered overweight or obese by the definition of BMI,” she concludes.
Getting a screening from a healthcare provider and having lab work completed is the most thorough way to have those five markers of metabolic health assessed (although there are certain at-home tests you can try)—especially since there are not always other obvious signs of less than ideal metabolic function2.
What’s the difference between metabolism and metabolic health?
Metabolic health is intricately tied to metabolism. “Metabolism refers to all of the bodily processes that convert the food we eat into energy,” says Pasquariello. Whereas “metabolic health asks the question ‘how well is your metabolism functioning, as measured by the state of various organ systems?’” she differentiates.
And all five metabolic health markers are related to the efficiency of energy breakdown, usage, and storage in the body.
The phrase “fast metabolism” refers to a metabolic system that is very efficient at using energy. And a “slow metabolism” is typically meant to indicate a more sluggish system that favors storing energy (or calories) rather than burning them.
Several factors impact how smoothly metabolic processes run. These include sex, ethnicity, hormones, and age, as well as modifiable lifestyle factors like exercise and dietary choices.
Tips to improve your metabolic health
And you can improve your metabolic health (like your cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and body composition) by incorporating habits that target those modifiable factors of metabolism. And most people have room for improvement, because only about 12% of the American population is considered metabolically healthy, according to a 2019 survey.
Up your weekly vegetable intake
“Bring more color and diversity to your plate whenever you can, and try to load up at least half of your plate with vegetables, especially dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies,” encourages Pasquariello.
This doesn’t mean you have to forego the favorite parts of your meal. Pasquariello emphasizes the importance of adding veggies to your plate first before giving a different food the boot.
And don’t forget to bring the flavor. “Test out new ways of cooking vegetables, too (braising, air-frying, oven-baking, etc.), and load veggies up with fresh herbs and seasonings,” she adds.
Eat for stable blood sugar
Balanced blood sugar levels are critical for metabolic health and function. And increasing your vegetable intake is a great first step to following a diet that promotes stable blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar levels rise any time you eat carbs. The goal is to just prevent levels from spiking quickly and dropping just as rapidly. You can curate meals to be blood sugar balancing by making sure they contain fiber (from vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc), protein, and healthy fats.
Get 7-9 hours of (quality) sleep a night
Sleep plays an incredibly sneaky role in metabolism. Sleeping poorly and not enough 7negatively impacts blood sugar control8 by disrupting hormone balance9. It disrupts the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin that help regulate appetite and feelings of fullness, as well as the stress hormone cortisol10, which favors fat storage.
“I often advise folks to think of exercise in terms of exercise 'snacks' throughout the day; 20 minutes of walking, resistance training, etc.—even (and especially) things like taking the stairs, cleaning, playing, and walking your dog,” says Pasquariello. “These add up and contribute much more to metabolism in the grand scheme of things.”
Try targeted supplementation
Certain vitamins and minerals help promote a healthy metabolism. mindbodygreen’s metabolism+ is wholly powered by plants and is packed with five science-backed ingredients that are to promote metabolic efficiency, as well as a healthy weight and body composition.*
- Veld grape extract: Promotes healthy blood pressure levels and the digestion and absorption of fats and carbohydrates.*
- Cayenne pepper fruit extract: Supports body composition and appetite control.*
- Grains of paradise: Helps maintain a healthy weight and reduce visceral fat accumulation.*
- Green tea extracts (EGCG and caffeine): Supports a balance between energy intake and expenditure12. *
Healthfully cope with stress
As mentioned early, stress (stemming from any source) can increase the hormone cortisol. Prolonged, elevated levels of this hormone can lead to weight gain, muscle loss, and even impacts blood pressure. It can also be challenging to lose weight when cortisol levels are high.
Healthfully coping with stress through meditation, yoga, and even therapy can help your metabolism work more efficiently.
What are the signs of suboptimal metabolic function?
Not everyone experiences physical signs of a metabolic imbalance, but some people with a sluggish metabolism may notice dry skin, thinning hair, difficulty losing weight, fatigue, mood swings, and difficulty focusing. Sudden, unintentional weight gain or weight loss is also a sign something could be off (and could be due to medication or a change of health state).
How do you support metabolic health?
You can improve your metabolic health by eating a balanced, whole-food diet rich in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Regular physical activity, especially weight training, is also essential. However, depending on your current metabolic state, your healthcare provider may recommend further treatment options for high cholesterol or high blood pressure, in addition to those lifestyle changes.
What disrupts metabolism?
Poor sleep, a diet high in added sugars, stress, and lack of exercise can all disrupt and slow your metabolism. Certain medical concerns (including thyroid health) and medications can also impact metabolism.
Metabolic health is a complicated subject, that can’t be boiled to weight or even blood sugar levels alone. Monitoring markers of metabolic health like your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure regularly (aka at least yearly) allows you to keep tabs on your current lifestyle choices, and make the appropriate adjustments if one of those markers starts to (or has) strayed from ideal levels.
Maintaining a healthy diet that supports blood sugar balance, taking a targeted metabolic supplement, and moving more supports a healthy metabolism now, and sets you up for better health years down the road.*
Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist and mindbodygreen's supplements editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Texas Christian University and a master’s in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts University. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and enjoys connecting people to the food they eat and how it influences health and wellbeing.