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Achieving Metabolic Health: What It Is, and 4 Things To Watch For

Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Published in Metabolic Health

9 min read

September 7, 2021
April 12, 2023
a woman doing a yoga stretch
a woman doing a yoga stretch

Our bodies depend on a symphony of individual organs working together to keep us alive. In most cases, if any one of those organs fails, we stop living. What we often forget are the hundreds of different complex chemical reactions inside of us playing just as important of a role.

Our metabolism makes up a significant portion of those reactions, representing all those activities associated with breaking down the food we put inside us and to fuel activities and create new components —things like bone, muscle, and even those very same organs.

There’s plenty of news and advice about keeping our hearts and bones healthy (for a good reason), but what happens to them if our metabolic system itself isn’t healthy?

What Does It Mean To Be Metabolically Healthy?

Metabolic health is challenging to define. There are so many different factors about a person’s overall health and circumstances that may imply their metabolism is working optimally compared to someone with a different life and body than theirs.

It is easier to describe a metabolically healthy body as one not having any signs of metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms that indicate your metabolism, and subsequently, your overall health is in poor shape. 

Having any sign of metabolic syndrome is a cause for evaluation and action. We’ll explore the risks associated with an unhealthy metabolic system and how you can identify the key factors.

The Risks Associated With Poor Metabolic Health

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is, effectively, the absence of a healthy metabolism and the hallmark condition of poor metabolic health, as evidenced by five distinguishing symptoms:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Abdominal obesity
  • Abnormal cholesterol
  • High triglyceride levels

By definition, a syndrome is a collection of concurrent symptoms that may correlate to subsequent complications or disorders. In this case, the symptoms listed above link to an unhealthy metabolism, which then correlates to potentially having, or being at risk too, several other conditions.

Many of those conditions are chronic and affect your life in some way every day. Some are even life-threatening. Having three of the five above symptoms is enough to consider yourself afflicted by metabolic syndrome.

According to a study against data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016, you must not be taking medication to treat any of these symptoms to consider yourself metabolically healthy. Which makes sense, considering most people’s goal is to live a life unencumbered by medication eventually.

Type 2 Diabetes

You might know people with diabetes who have several of the symptoms mentioned above: not surprising since diabetes is a leading complication of metabolic syndrome. Diabetes results from the body either not making enough of the hormone insulin, or by the body’s inability to respond to insulin appropriately.

With type 2 diabetes specifically, your body makes enough insulin, but it no longer responds to the signals appropriately, which causes your blood glucose (blood sugar) to be consistently elevated above healthy levels. Diabetes can cause serious health complications such as kidney failure or stroke, so if you believe you suffer from metabolic syndrome, this may be incentive enough to consider taking preventative action.

Heart Disease

One of the most common causes of death across the globe, and the leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease shares much of its symptoms with metabolic syndrome: the presence of one typically means risk of the other. Suffering from heart disease can mean one of several conditions is affecting your heart or vascular system.

The most common effect is that your heart isn’t getting enough blood to pump around your body. A slew of severe complications arise from that, including heart attack and stroke. Both are life-changing events that can have lasting effects.

A Lot of Other Risks

Since the symptoms of having poor metabolic health are widely indicative of potentially significant problems with the health of your heart, blood, and overall physical activity, many other risks also present themselves. The complications associated with all of the symptoms of metabolic syndrome can be drastic to your overall health and wellbeing, so we suggest taking control now by watching for the following signs.

Four Markers Of Metabolic Health Experts Pay Attention To

a person using finger prick method to test their glucose level

1) Blood Sugar Levels Before and After Eating

What To Look For

Blood glucose has been found to affect a long and growing list of bodily systems. It is, after all, the fuel your blood carries to all your cells to keep them working. Naturally, if your glucose levels are off, you’ll feel off too.

This often manifests as a “crash,” where your sugar levels spike and suddenly drop off after eating something poorly balanced. You may even have trouble sleeping, in what can become a cycle of imbalanced blood glucose levels affecting your sleep and poor sleep affecting your blood glucose levels.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms in the short term, we encourage acting now as the long-term effects can be difficult to treat, and the consequences can be far-reaching.

What’s Considered Healthy

Normal blood glucose levels will vary from person to person, with certain expected ranges for certain times of the day and after certain activities. Generally, active living and a balanced diet will help keep your levels in a safe and manageable range. We caution that some diets superficially appear as perfect fixes to high blood sugar, but they still require careful management.

a cluttered blood vessel

2) High Triglyceride Levels

What To Look For

Often confused for cholesterol, triglycerides are similar in that they are a type of fat (called a lipid). Specifically, they store excess caloric energy until it can be used, lest it eventually gets stored as body fat.

While some amount of circulating triglycerides in the blood is normal, excessive levels can contribute to heart disease and increase your risk of having a stroke or heart attack. Typically, any signs of poor diet and lack of physical fitness are reason enough to check for high triglyceride levels.

What’s Considered Healthy

Like blood sugar, preferred levels of triglycerides vary from person to person and can be most effectively managed through a balanced diet and active living. Normal triglycerides are typically considered less than 150 mg/dL in a fasted state.

How To Measure It

A lipid panel is a test that your doctor can apply as a part of routine blood work. Certain providers can ship you a test kit that will require you to prick your finger and mail back a blood sample. Some tests deliver results within minutes at home, but there hasn’t been any official adoption yet.

a person measuring their waist

3) Increasing Waist Circumference

What To Look For

Invariably, too many unused calories will build up as body fat. Concerning metabolic health, it’s the fat that builds up around your abdomen and waist that is of particular worry. Around your waist is where fat tends to build up deeper within you and around your organs (known as visceral fat). Studies have shown that visceral fat, particularly in this location, has been shown to correlate to a lot of other metabolic complications. 

What’s Considered Healthy

Diet and exercise once again reign as the preferred method of keeping your waist size down. Harvard medical school recommends waist sizes of 37 inches or less for men, and 31.5 inches or less for women, regardless of height. 

How To Measure It

All one needs to measure their waist size is a measuring tape- not the type used for construction projects, but one made of flexible fabric or plastic. You can find them in most big brand stores in the sporting goods section or in sewing and craft stores.

a doctor measuring patient's blood pressure

4) High Blood Pressure

What To Look For

Over 85% of those with metabolic syndrome had high blood pressure (known as hypertension) as one of their symptoms. It was the prevailing contributor to the more risky and impactful conditions associated with metabolic syndrome, such as heart disease.

Like those mentioned before, hypertension is commonly present with other severe symptoms simultaneously, like high cholesterol, which may be contributing to further elevated blood pressure in a punishing cycle. Unfortunately, symptoms rarely present themselves, even if your blood pressure is dangerously high.

We recommend measuring this as often as possible if you’re experiencing any of the other symptoms or complications mentioned here.

What’s Considered Healthy

Thankfully, healthy blood pressure is normalized across people of all shapes, sizes, and ages than the other, more subjective risk factors listed above. A systolic reading of less than 120, and a diastolic reading of less than 80, are considered normal.

How To Measure It

Measuring blood pressure is also relatively straightforward, with several options conveniently available. A sphygmomanometer device, which despite its expensive-sounding name, can be found online and in some big branded stores for $15 to $30.

The two numbers produced by the meter show your systolic pressure (when your heart is in the middle of a beat, which will be understandably higher) and diastolic pressure, when your heart is between beats. Reading your systolic pressure over diastolic pressure will give you your blood pressure.

If you’d rather not spend money on your meter, your doctor will undoubtedly be able to measure it for you. Your grocery store may have one available to use for free, usually by the pharmacy counter.

How to Improve Your Metabolic Health

In general, the more you prepare and train your body through healthy habits, the more flexible it becomes toward handling different types and amounts of foods you might give it throughout the day. Your body adapts to consume what you give it more readily, keeping your blood glucose levels more balanced and your energy levels more consistent.

Ultimately, a balanced diet and regular exercise are the most accessible methods of training your metabolism and staving off the symptoms of metabolic syndrome. But getting started is complex, and the amount of choice in how to handle your health and wellness can be daunting.

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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.