You may have heard the term metabolic health before, but do you really understand its meaning? Many of us think of metabolism as the rate at which we digest food. Lucky individuals gifted with a high metabolism can rapidly burn off a cheeseburger, while indulgent food choices can cause the number on the scale to increase for those with a slow metabolism. However, your metabolic health affects far more than your digestion and weight—and don’t assume you have good metabolic health simply because you’re at “normal” weight. Here’s what you should know about the importance of metabolic health, plus 11 actionable tips you can use to improve your metabolic health should you discover yours is less than optimal.
The Alarming Truth About Metabolic Health
The reality is, the state of your metabolic health influences all the other aspects of your health. In order for your systems to be operating at full capacity, your metabolic health must be in order.
Unfortunately, a recent study found that an “alarmingly low” percentage of American adults actually meet the standards for good metabolic health. That means most face an elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
After evaluating National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from 8,721 adults, a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded that only one out of every eight adults in the United States can be said to have optimal metabolic health. In their findings, published in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, they defined optimal metabolic health as meeting the criteria for ideal levels of blood glucose, blood pressure, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and waist circumference, all without the use of medications. They selected those criteria based on the proven link between adverse changes to those markers and an increased risk of serious health conditions.
While participants who were obese fared the worst, with a mere 0.5% meeting the criteria for good metabolic health, the majority of participants who were underweight and at a normal weight also fell short. Less than half of underweight participants and less than a third of normal weight participants met the criteria.
“We need to look at metabolism beyond just body weight,” commented Dr. Rekha Kumar, an endocrinologist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, in an interview. “There has been a push to address obesity through public health measures, but this study shows us that even people who are a normal weight seem to be developing diseases that we typically correlate with obesity.”
Defining Metabolic Health
At this time, there is no universally accepted definition for metabolic health. While the researchers from UNC Chapel Hill decided to categorize only participants who met all five criteria as optimally healthy, other experts have used different definitions.
However, all definitions of metabolic health center on the five measurements mentioned above:
- Blood glucose
- Blood pressure
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
- Waist circumference
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), individuals who fall into areas of concern for three of those five measurements have what’s called metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health conditions that can escalate, leading to heart attacks and other life-threatening consequences. The AHA guidelines are:
- Fasting blood glucose of 100 mg/dL or greater
- Systolic blood pressure (top number) of 130 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater, or diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 85 mm Hg or greater
- HDL cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women
- Triglyceride level of 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or greater
- Abdominal obesity (waist circumference of greater than 40 inches in men, and greater than 35 inches in women)
Over the years, medical professionals have tightened the criteria for what’s considered a healthy measurement. The UNC Chapel Hill researchers used “the most recent and restrictive” criteria established by both scientific societies as well as governmental bodies, meaning fewer individuals met the standards for metabolic health than other, earlier assessments reflected.
According to Dr. Rosemary Ku, a dual board-certified physician and founder of the digital health nonprofit Cure Chronic Disease, one of the most significant differences between the standards used for the UNC Chapel Hill findings and those used for prior studies was the blood pressure threshold. “The standard for metabolic syndrome [used to be] 130/85, but in this study, they considered 120/80 to be optimal,” Ku said in an interview.
The purpose for using stricter guidelines, Dr. Kumar of New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine explained, is not to shame people with labels, but to help them grasp the increased health risks they face so they can take steps to improve their health.
One of the most difficult measures to standardize is waist circumference, which contributed significantly to the total number of people determined to be in optimal metabolic health—its influence dropped from 17.6% to 12.2%.
The UNC Chapel Hill team settled on a consistent method for measuring waist circumference, but no universal standard used by all doctors has been put in place for doing so.
Still, experts agree it’s important to take waist circumference into account. A larger circumference can indicate the presence of visceral fat gathered around the organs, which studies have linked to a higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
What Influences Metabolic Health?
According to the UNC Chapel Hill study, both demographic characteristics and lifestyle factors influence the state of your metabolic health.
For instance, they found some of the highest metabolic rates among individuals who were physically active as well as nonsmokers. It appears that age, biological sex, and race also come into play: both women and individuals under the age of 40 have higher rates of optimal metabolic health, while individuals age 60 and older as well as African American participants had some of the lowest rates of optimal metabolic health. Having at least some college education also correlates with better metabolic health.
Walking meetings are a great way to get some exercise outside the office. Or, in inclement weather, some corporations even have gyms on site. You and a co-worker could go walk at an indoor mall. Brainstorming while blood is pumping to the brain may result in better ideas, and for sure will help you get in at least 30 minutes of walking.
So, how do you improve your metabolic health? Obviously, certain factors that increase your risk cannot be changed, such as your age, biological sex, or race. However, increasing the amount of physical activity you engage in or striving to meet healthy weight-loss goals can significantly improve your metabolic health.
11 Actionable Tips to Improve Metabolic Health
Change can be overwhelming, but making small shifts can add up to a significant impact on your metabolic health. While much of the advice about metabolic health has to do with reducing body fat and increasing muscle mass, that doesn’t mean your goal needs to be becoming a hard-bodied gym rat.
If you’re unaccustomed to spending time in gyms, you may imagine that all the people there are already in peak physical condition. While that may be true at certain facilities, or at certain times of day, many gyms work to be inclusive of individuals of all body types and fitness levels. If you have the means for a gym membership, building a community of supportive peers can be a valuable tool to help you follow through on your exercise goals. One way to decrease the anxiety you might feel about a first visit to a gym could be to do some online research to identify a facility with an ethos that agrees with your own.
It’s also entirely possible to incorporate physical activity into your life without a gym membership. Simply choosing to take the stairs, rather than the elevator, can be a great first step.
Furthermore, while building muscle and boosting your aerobic capacity is important, it’s not the only element of improving your metabolic health. Sleep deprivation can be just as harmful as inactivity. And while eating fewer calories may help you change your body composition in ways that benefit your overall health, making sure the calories you take in come from nutrient-rich foods rather than overly processed, additive-laden ones is crucial to achieving optimal metabolic health.
Read on for 11 actionable tips you can use to improve your metabolic health.
1. Drink More Water
Increasing your water intake can improve your metabolic health in a number of ways, independent of changes to your diet or activity level.
According to a study published in Obesity, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal, short-term experiments suggest drinking water promotes weight loss by lowering total energy intake, altering metabolism, or both. In other words, drinking water may help you consume fewer calories, burn calories more rapidly, or both.
Additional studies support the idea that drinking water can increase your resting metabolic rate—at least temporarily. Findings published in 2011 showed that drinking water increased participants’ resting metabolic rate by up to 25%, which the researchers calculated could translate to an additional weight loss of approximately 2.6 pounds per year.
Drinking more water can also lead to a lower caloric intake. A systematic review of studies—including both clinical trials, epidemiological studies, and intervention studies—determined that drinking water before or during a meal can decrease the number of calories people consume. One study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when participants drank 500 milliliters of water 30 minutes before a meal, they ate approximately 13% fewer calories. This reduction in caloric intake was unrelated to sex, age, body mass index, or habitual daily water consumption.
Some evidence indicates that drinking cold water may have the most pronounced calorie-burning effect. This has to do with what scientists call the thermogenic property of water: in simple terms, when you drink cold water, your body burns calories simply by heating it up to body temperature.
If you currently drink soda and other sugary beverages, replacing those with water can make it more possible to lose weight and keep it off, according to at least one study. This choice allows you to reduce your overall caloric intake without changing the number of calories you take in from the food you eat.
2. Spend Less Time Sitting
A burgeoning consensus among health care professionals holds that spending too much time sitting can be damaging to your health.
A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examined how the amount of time you spent sitting relates to your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. The authors found a significant association between time spent sitting and rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality. It’s important to note that these associations remained intact regardless of the amount of time participants spent engaging in physical activity, meaning that even daily exercise can’t counterbalance long stretches of sedentary behavior.
If you have the ability to work standing up, that can also help you burn more calories. An office-based study found that standing throughout an afternoon of work resulted in an energy expenditure that was 174 calories greater than for sitting.
For those who don’t have the option of working at a standing desk, or adapting an existing desk to allow them to work while standing, taking standing breaks can mitigate the effects of the time you spend sitting.
3. Embrace Strength Training
Older theories on how best to use exercise to support weight loss prioritized cardio training, but it’s now clear that strength training can be just as influential—if not more so.
Because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, increasing your muscle mass can raise your resting metabolic rate. According to at least one study, body composition, and muscle mass in particular, is the primary determinant of your resting metabolic rate, which accounts for between 50% and 70% of your daily energy expenditure. This means you can improve metabolic health by using strength training to build muscle mass.
“Inactive adults experience a 3% to 8% loss of muscle mass per decade, accompanied by resting metabolic rate reduction and fat accumulation,” stated Wayne L. Westcott, a prolific researcher in the field, in findings published in Current Sports Medicine Reports. Westcott went on to detail how 10 weeks of resistance training can result in roughly a 3-pound increase in muscle mass and a 7% increase in resting metabolic rate.
Strength training can help counteract a common weight loss pitfall too—that you lose muscle along with fat. Researchers from the University of Alabama found that strength training helped study participants maintain muscle mass while losing weight.
Participants, all of whom adhered to a diet that restricted caloric intake to 800 calories per day, were divided into three groups: aerobic exercise, strength training, and control. Participants in the strength training group maintained their muscle mass, metabolic rate, and physical strength. Other participants lost comparable amounts of weight, but lost muscle mass and saw their metabolisms slow.
4. Eat More Protein
Another way to ensure you maintain your metabolic rate while losing weight is to up your protein intake. As with strength training, the reason for this is that providing your body with a good supply of protein helps build and maintain muscle mass.
Findings published in the Journal of Nutrition show that eating a high-protein diet while following a calorie-restricted diet led to participants’ muscle mass and resting energy expenditure “changing favorably” compared to those who followed a normal-protein diet.
Protein also causes the most significant thermic effect of food—meaning, essentially, that it causes your metabolism to shift into high gear for a few hours after you consume it. Scientists have found that protein can increase your metabolic rate by between 15% and 30%, compared to 5-10% for carbohydrates and 0-3% for fats.
Plus, eating protein can help you stay satiated, which decreases the likelihood of overeating. Research conducted at the Food for Health Science Center at Lund University in Sweden, showed that participants who consumed high-protein breakfasts ate 12% fewer calories at lunch than those who ate lower protein, higher carb breakfasts.
5. Brew Some Green or Oolong Tea
Scientists believe that drinking both green tea and oolong tea (partially oxidized tea varietals, the less oxidized of which lean more toward fresh green tea while the more oxidized taste closer to malty black tea) can help increase fat burning.
One study found that drinking green tea can increase fat oxidation (the technical term for fat burning) by between 10% and 17%, and improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.
It appears that the beneficial effects of green and oolong tea result from their catechin and caffeine content. Polyphenols in the teas seem to counteract decreases in metabolic rate that can accompany weight loss, helping you to maintain or even increase your energy expenditure. This can be of particular importance during the maintenance phase after weight loss.
Oolong and green tea have been proven in several studies to help improve cardiovascular and metabolic health. About 5 or 6 cups of tea per day conveys the best metabolic health improvements, according to an overview of research on the matter published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
6. Try a High-Intensity Workout
Studies show individuals who try high-intensity interval training (HIIT) maintain an elevated metabolic rate even after completing their workout.
High-intensity interval training involves carrying out short, intense sprints of different exercises. It appears this approach to training may lead to a greater fat-burning effect than other training approaches. Findings published in the Journal of Translational Medicine indicate that high-intensity interval resistance training workouts yield a more elevated resting metabolic rate 22 hours after a training session than do traditional resistance training sessions. The authors concluded that HIIT can lead to improved fat-burning results, and as an added benefit, since sessions require a shorter time commitment, can eliminate a barrier to exercise for many people.
That said, if you’re not used to physical activity, it may not be wise to leap into high-intensity training at the outset. Remember that any increase in physical activity will help your metabolic health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Even 60 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is good for you.”
7. Experiment with Low-Carb Eating
Diets low in carbohydrates, such as the ketogenic diet (often abbreviated to the keto diet, or just keto), have been shown to help obese people lose weight.
Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research in Public Health determined that the keto diet has “a solid physiological and biochemical basis and is able to induce effective weight loss along with improvement in several cardiovascular risk parameters.”
Furthermore, a review of 23 randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of scientific research, compared the efficacy of low-carb diets to low-fat diets, and found that a low-carb approach always led to more significant weight loss—in some cases, two to three times as much! That difference remained quite consistent, despite the fact that calories were often restricted for low-fat participants and unrestricted for low-carb participants.
Low-carb diets also produced the most impressive results for reducing abdominal fat. As mentioned previously, abdominal fat deposits have more significant health implications than fat carried elsewhere on the body.
The review found that low-carb diets produced impressive changes to other key measurements of metabolic health as well, including lower levels of triglycerides, “drastic” improvements to blood sugar markers, and decreased blood pressure.
It’s important to note that, at this time, most available research on the benefits of low-carb diets deals only with the short- to middle-term effects.
8. Prioritize Sleep
While the research as to why this is the case isn’t clear, lack of sleep is linked to lower metabolism, according to research published in the International Journal of Endocrinology.
It appears that sleep deprivation can also spike blood sugar levels and result in increased insulin resistance, both of which elevate your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Findings published in the Journal of Applied Physiology report that sleep loss can produce a marled effect on glucose metabolism. The authors note that laboratory studies show decreases to glucose tolerance as well as insulin sensitivity. Furthermore, a lack of sleep decreases levels of appetite-reducing leptin and increases levels of appetite-stimulating ghrelin. All these changes correlate with increased hunger and appetite, which the researchers predict could led to overeating and weight gain.
They also refer to a growing body of epidemiological evidence showing that the less sleep you get, the higher your risk of both obesity and diabetes. “In this increasingly prevalent syndrome, a feedforward cascade of negative events generated by sleep loss, sleep fragmentation, and hypoxia are likely to exacerbate the severity of metabolic disturbances,” they concluded.
9. Abstain from Cigarettes
Even those who still smoke cigarettes know the habit harms their health. But have you ever calculated the economic burden the health care costs associated with smoking place on the U.S. economy?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the cost of smoking-related illnesses at over $300 billion annually—yes, billion with a B. Of that, close to $170 billion comes from the cost of direct medical care for adult smokers.
If your metabolic health is less than optimal—as you may recall, that’s true for most people—smoking cigarettes is akin to throwing gasoline on a blazing fire of health issues. A study published in Clinical Lipidology found that cigarette smoking can both increase your risk of developing metabolic syndrome and intensify existing symptoms.
Fortunately, it appears that once a person quits smoking, markers such as insulin sensitivity can bounce back to healthy levels. Though this can be complicated by the weight gain that can go along with smoking cessation, researchers have determined that the health benefits of abstaining from cigarettes far outweigh any health consequences related to the accompanying weight gain. That said, they encourage current smokers to seek out smoking cessation treatment that includes a focus on weight management and weight gain anxiety reduction, especially women who are statistically more likely to begin smoking again if they gain weight while attempting to quit.
10. Avoid Food Preservatives
Research published in the journal Nature in 2015 showed a direct link between food additives and obesity.
The study focused specifically on the use of emulsifiers, which are commonly used to create a smooth texture in processed foods such as ice cream and mayonnaise. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that emulsifiers are “generally regarded as safe,” because there is no evidence that they increase the risk of cancer or have toxic effects in mammals, it appears that they can in fact have a detrimental effect on your health.
The study’s authors found that consuming even one-tenth of the concentration of emulsifiers that the FDA allows in a food product led to concerning changes in the gut microbiota that instigates metabolic issues, systemic inflammation, and obesity.
A separate study, conducted by scientists from the Department of Medicine at Boston University Medical Center and the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Health, found that both intentional food additives such as artificial sweeteners and colors and emulsifiers as well as unintentional additives such as pesticides can “dysregulate endocrine function, insulin signaling, and/or adipocyte function.” They note that more research is needed to identify precisely which additives cause harm, and how, but for the time being, it seems wise to avoid exposure as much as possible.
11. Take an Essential Amino Acid Supplement
If there is any one, single key to metabolic health, it just might be essential amino acids.
A higher intake of essential amino acids can improve insulin sensitivity, reduce the concentrations of “bad” lipids (LDL cholesterol and triglycerides) in the blood, and also reduce dangerous visceral fat.
Essential amino acids are part of a normal diet, and are particularly abundant in high-quality protein food sources such as chicken, fish, meat, and dairy. However, these food sources usually fail to deliver the amount of essential amino acids necessary for optimal metabolic health.
That’s why a high-quality, well-formulated dietary supplement of essential amino acids can provide significant benefit for everyone seeking to improve metabolic health.