What is metabolic health?
What is metabolic health?
February 22, 2022
Metabolic health is a way of looking at your overall health and wellness through a specific lens. Your body is home to thousands upon thousands of biochemical reactions that occur every day in response to just about everything you do—what food you put in your body, how much you move, how much you sleep, how stressed you are, and the list goes on. And the sum total of those biochemical processes paints a picture: it gives an overall guide to your health.
But how does what we do affect all these biochemical processes? There’s a lot of factors at play here, so let’s look at one of the more important examples: our diet. When we eat something, it goes through our digestive system, which is where our bodies absorb the nutrients in the food we eat. Our digestive tract houses millions of gut bacteria (sometimes referred to as our gut microbiome), which helps break down some of that food. When we eat foods that have a lot of fiber or that contain certain kinds of plant compounds like anthocyanins, it has a beneficial effect on those gut bacteria, and it makes our gut microbiome healthier.1 This, in turn, helps improve the gastrointestinal barrier function in our gut—in other words, it makes our gut more effective at letting beneficial nutrients through and keeping harmful compounds out.2
In contrast, when we eat unhealthy foods (like junk food full of fat and sugar), it has the opposite effect—less healthy gut bacteria, and worse gastrointestinal barrier function. More harmful compounds get through into our bodies, and that starts a cascade reaction. Those harmful compounds—called endotoxins—can cause inflammation in the body, and too much inflammation leads to metabolic consequences.3
Markers of Metabolic Health
Even though our metabolic health is about thousands of biochemical reactions in the body and can be quite complex, there are some common markers of overall metabolic health, including blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, triglycerides, and waist circumference. These are easily measured by a healthcare professional with simple tests, which is why a lot of doctors use them to get a snapshot of metabolic health. When these health indicators are within established healthy ranges, it means that person is metabolically healthy.
However, it turns out that most people are not metabolically healthy, which means that for most of us, at least one of these health indicators is outside of the healthy range. A recent study showed that only about one in eight people in the US are considered metabolically healthy using these biomarkers as a gauge. That means that 88% of people do not have optimal metabolic health! In general, this statistic goes up with age (meaning the older somebody is, the more likely they are to have poor metabolic health), but a large percentage of younger individuals also fall into this category.4
Reasons for Poor Metabolic Health
Our metabolic health is determined in large part by our lifestyle. And a wide variety of lifestyle choices have a direct impact on these markers of metabolic health. Here are a few examples.
- How active we are: if we have a mostly sedentary lifestyle, that’s generally worse for our metabolic health than if we are active or exercise regularly.5,6
- What we eat: eating high-fat meals, lots of fast food, too many simple sugars, or foods that are not providing the nutrition we need is worse for our metabolic health than eating a healthy, varied diet that includes a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.5,6
- How much sleep we get: it’s no surprise that getting enough sleep is critical for metabolic health.7
- How much we weigh: being overweight tends to increase the likelihood of having poor metabolic health, although even people who aren't overweight can have poor metabolic health.4
How to Improve Your Metabolic Health
The good news is that metabolic health is not a switch that’s either on or off. It’s more like a spectrum, and the more we make healthy choices, the more we can nudge our bodies toward the healthier end of that spectrum. And many of these examples are variables over which we have at least some control. By trying to eat a healthier diet, making an effort to get enough quality sleep, or changing some other aspect of your lifestyle to be healthier, you can start to shift your body toward the healthier end of the metabolic health spectrum.
So, what are some healthy lifestyle habits we can establish? First, build a healthy diet. A healthy diet is one that includes balanced meals that provide adequate protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors. A rainbow is important because different colors of fruits and vegetables provide different phytonutrients. For example, red tomatoes provide lycopene and orange carrots provide beta carotene, while blueberries and purple cabbage provide anthocyanins. Research shows that anthocyanins are particularly important for supporting a healthy gut microbiome and metabolic health.1,8
Another healthy lifestyle habit is to establish a more active lifestyle. That might involve taking a 30-minute walk every afternoon or setting aside 30-60 minutes several days per week to exercise. Research shows that individuals who are metabolically unhealthy can benefit from moderate to high intensity training three times per week; in one study, researchers saw improvements in metabolic parameters after 4 months.9 For some people, it might be more realistic to set smaller goals, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away from the store, or getting off the bus a stop early. It’s important to find habits that work for you.
Other healthy lifestyle habits include establishing a sleep routine of going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day and finding ways to reduce stress in our lives.
Cultivating Metabolic Flexibility
Making these healthy lifestyle choices has a compounding effect. The more we do it, the better shape we are in metabolically, and the less impact occasional poor choices will have. This concept is called metabolic flexibility.10 For example, if someone gets only three or four hours of sleep one night, they probably won’t feel great the next day. But if they get enough sleep the following few nights, they can bounce back with relative ease. However, if someone only gets three or four hours of sleep each night for a week, or a month, it becomes much harder to bounce back from that.
This same principle holds true for other areas, too, like how consistently we eat a healthy diet or how much stress we are experiencing. The more we can make healthy choices, the more resilience we have to the occasional less-healthy days. We can use the importance of metabolic flexibility in our favor. By building healthy lifestyle habits, we can cultivate better resilience to the curveballs life throws at us now and then.
Regardless of what habits you choose to focus on, every healthy choice you make contributes to your overall metabolic health!
R&D Communication & Education Manager
- Hester SN, Mastaloudis A, Gray R, Antony JM, Evans M, Wood SM. Efficacy of an Anthocyanin and Prebiotic Blend on Intestinal Environment in Obese Male and Female Subjects. J Nutr Metab. 2018 Sep 13;2018:7497260.
- Cremonini E, Daveri E, Mastaloudis A, Adamo AM, Mills D, Kalanetra K, Hester SN, Wood SM, Fraga CG, Oteiza PI. Anthocyanins protect the gastrointestinal tract from high fat diet-induced alterations in redox signaling, barrier integrity and dysbiosis. Redox Biol. 2019 Sep;26:101269.
- Salvo Romero E, Alonso Cotoner C, Pardo Camacho C, Casado Bedmar M, Vicario M. The intestinal barrier function and its involvement in digestive disease. Rev Esp Enferm Dig. 2015 Nov;107(11):686-96. doi: 10.17235/reed.2015.3846/2015. PMID: 26541659.
- Araújo J, Cai J, Stevens J. Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2016. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2019 Feb;17(1):46-52. doi: 10.1089/met.2018.0105. Epub 2018 Nov 27. PMID: 30484738.
- Saklayen MG. The Global Epidemic of the Metabolic Syndrome. Curr Hypertens Rep. 2018 Feb 26;20(2):12. doi: 10.1007/s11906-018-0812-z. PMID: 29480368; PMCID: PMC5866840.
- Gallardo-Alfaro L, Bibiloni MDM, Mascaró CM, Montemayor S, Ruiz-Canela M, Salas-Salvadó J, Corella D, Fitó M, Romaguera D, Vioque J, Alonso-Gómez ÁM, Wärnberg J, Martínez JA, Serra-Majem L, Estruch R, Fernández-García JC, Lapetra J, Pintó X, García Ríos A, Bueno-Cavanillas A, Gaforio JJ, Matía-Martín P, Daimiel L, Micó-Pérez RM, Vidal J, Vázquez C, Ros E, Fernandez-Lázaro CI, Becerra-Tomás N, Gimenez-Alba IM, Zomeño MD, Konieczna J, Compañ-Gabucio L, Tojal-Sierra L, Pérez-López J, Zulet MÁ, Casañas-Quintana T, Castro-Barquero S, Gómez-Pérez AM, Santos-Lozano JM, Galera A, Basterra-Gortari FJ, Basora J, Saiz C, Pérez-Vega KA, Galmés-Panadés AM, Tercero-Maciá C, Sorto-Sánchez C, Sayón-Orea C, García-Gavilán J, Muñoz-Martínez J, Tur JA. Leisure-Time Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Diet Quality are Associated with Metabolic Syndrome Severity: The PREDIMED-Plus Study. Nutrients. 2020 Apr 7;12(4):1013. doi: 10.3390/nu12041013. PMID: 32272653; PMCID: PMC7230557.
- Grandner MA, Fernandez FX. The translational neuroscience of sleep: A contextual framework. Science. 2021 Oct 29;374(6567):568-573. doi: 10.1126/science.abj8188. Epub 2021 Oct 28. PMID: 34709899.
- Yang L, Ling W, Du Z, Chen Y, Li D, Deng S, Liu Z, Yang L. Effects of Anthocyanins on Cardiometabolic Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Adv Nutr. 2017 Sep 15;8(5):684-693. doi: 10.3945/an.116.014852. PMID: 28916569; PMCID: PMC5593100.
- Morales-Palomo F, Ramirez-Jimenez M, Ortega JF, Mora-Rodriguez R. Effectiveness of Aerobic Exercise Programs for Health Promotion in Metabolic Syndrome. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Sep;51(9):1876-1883. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001983. PMID: 31415443.
- Smith RL, Soeters MR, Wüst RCI, Houtkooper RH. Metabolic Flexibility as an Adaptation to Energy Resources and Requirements in Health and Disease. Endocr Rev. 2018 Aug 1;39(4):489-517. doi: 10.1210/er.2017-00211. PMID: 29697773; PMCID: PMC6093334.