By Rachel Welch
How do you know if you’re truly healthy? Do you base your health off of how you look, how you feel, or maybe how out-of-breath you feel after climbing a set of stairs? For many of us, measures of health vary, with some people prioritizing weight, while others prioritize athletic performance, and so on. In the case of experts’ measurement of our health, there is one term that is often referred to. Metabolic health.
Metabolic health is a tool which can show if someone is physically healthy, and at risk or not for health issues down the line. Tied closely to one’s metabolism, metabolic health takes a combination of health factors into consideration. In contrast to antiquated and misused measurements like BMI, metabolic health markers have a strong and proven correlation to a person’s likelihood of having medical issues presently, or in the future. When assessing a person’s metabolic health, doctors measure for optimal levels of five markers: blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference – naturally, without using medication to achieve these numbers (1).
Some doctors view metabolic health as being the absence of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when a person has multiple health risks in tandem with one another. Health risks like high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol, a large waistline due to excess body fat, and abnormal triglyceride levels all pose a higher risk of certain health conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (2).
The factors which lead a person to be diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome can include:
If a person has 3 or more of these factors present, they can be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, until these factors improve. Regarding prevalence of metabolic syndrome, data collected between 2009-2016 showed that metabolic syndrome was on the rise in the United States, which means that metabolic health among American adults is “alarmingly low.” This data showed that less than one-third of adults were metabolically healthy, which decreased further in cases of individuals with overweight or obese diagnoses (3). A more recent study evaluated similar markers from 1999-2018, and found that the rates of metabolic health are only getting worse as time goes by. They claim that between 1999 and 2018, they observed worsening health rates, with some disparities based on socioeconomic factors like age, sex, education, and race/ethnicity (4). The overarching message is clear though - the statistics are not on the right, or healthy path!
Metabolic Health and Gender
It is time to deconstruct the common perception that women and men are physically and biologically, completely different. Over the years, there has been a rhetoric that women have an objectively harder time losing weight than men, and that they are biologically at a disadvantage in one way or another. This way of thinking is not only limiting and (in some cases offensive), but also scientifically inaccurate. When it comes to metabolic health, men and women are actually very similar, and the difference more so lies within lifestyle and activity level. Where some differences may have caused initial confusion, experts are now working to set the record straight.
As Jason Rogers of Jefferson Regional puts it, women are metabolically at a benefit. Womens’ bodies store fat differently than men's. Men often have more fat around their abdominal organs, while for women, it is stored between the muscles and the skin. Additionally, women have a greater proportion of muscle fibers, which allows them to burn more fat during active exercise than men can. While women have the capability to burn more during exercise, men have the ability to burn more fat while at rest. Additionally, men's bodies do not naturally have as much fat as women's do. This is partly to make childbirth possible, etc. Women have better insulin sensitivity, and burn a greater portion of fat during exercise, taking the lead in maximal strength. So, there are differences between the genders, but they have been misconstrued to reflect an inaccurate metabolic disadvantage. What we now know is that “primary factors in determining metabolism are body size, body composition, and activity level – with gender playing little to no role.”
In layman's terms, women and men may have different biological processes to achieve it, but if they both maintain the same ratio of muscle mass to body fat, their metabolic health will be the same (5).
To further support this pivotal view of metabolic equality, a study published in 2021 explores energy expenditure over the course of human life. They studied males and females from infancy to late adulthood, and assessed daily energy expenditure. Over 80 researchers, over the course of 40 years and with nearly 6500 participants found that men and women do not have different metabolisms. Rather, metabolism is based solely on the body mass a person has, regardless of their gender (6).
Metabolic Health and Age
Another factor that contributes to metabolic health patterns is age. Metabolism fluctuates and changes over the course of a person’s life, and may resemble a trajectory like the following:
By the age of 95, a person's metabolic rate is likely to have declined by 20% from the age of 60 (7).
Metabolic Health: How to Achieve It
Now that we have an understanding of the facts surrounding metabolism, metabolic health, and the similarities between men and women, let’s dive into how to actually achieve metabolic health.
If you’re reading this piece, it is likely that you have some level of investment into your health, which is wonderful! I’m sure you also don’t want to be part of America’s poor statistics of health, so how can you rise above and be the exception? Thankfully, the secret is out that metabolic health and metabolism are completely malleable. Meaning, you have complete influence over your metabolic, and your overall health! This is great news because it means that you are not bound to one way of life by your genetics, gender, or chemistry. Life can literally be what you make of it, and if you want to make it healthy, here are some starting points.
Build Your Muscle!
As we discussed earlier, muscle mass is a prime indicator of metabolism, and metabolic health as a whole. And, it is perfectly achievable for men and women alike. A “strong” first step to becoming stronger, is to build your muscles! Weight training, body weight exercises, and adequate protein intake are all big factors for this goal (8).
Any movement is good movement, but make sure to prioritize muscle-building activities if you aim to improve your metabolic health. This can involve a routine of weight lifting a few times per week, or even going on a walk and carrying your kiddo on your shoulders. Anything that helps to push your muscles into high weight, with high frequency, will yield improved strength.
With weight training, it is important to start small and work your way up with both weight and frequency. If you feel like you need structured guidance, there are great resources available online, and also personal trainers in your local gyms who can get you started.
Make Note of Nutrition
Balanced nutrition is a key component to overall health, metabolic health included. Certain foods will help to boost your metabolism better than others, and also provide beneficial nutrients to keep your body healthy. Some examples of metabolism-boosting foods include:
Prolonged or chronic stress patterns lead to metabolic dysfunction. When experiencing extended periods of stress, a lot of things get thrown off, including your metabolism. For this reason, it is important to stress less if you want to get your metabolic health in check! We recently shared this piece on how to shake off stress, which has some helpful tips.
Stress also leads to impaired sleep quality, which is also strongly related to metabolic health. Without proper sleep, our body loses its ability to use insulin properly, and that leads to issues with metabolism functionality. Aim for a 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and some helpful de-stress techniques to keep things on track.
Fasting may be a good option for you, assuming you don’t have any health issues that could be negatively impacted. Some research suggests that fasting can give the body and metabolism a beneficial rest. If you choose to explore this option, you can choose from intermittent fasting, a diet that mimics fasting (like the keto diet), or traditional fasting. You can learn more about this here.
Go for Gut Health
The gut microbiome is a hot topic of conversation these days, and one which shows us the strong ties between what we eat and what we think. If our gut is healthy, our brain is more likely to be healthy, and it is therefore important to prioritize gut health. Some foods to add which help with this balance are items containing probiotics, and prebiotics.
Metabolism and You
You have control over more than you may think when it comes to your metabolic health! We can all benefit from taking charge of our own lives, and as a result, our own metabolisms. There are no more limitations, as you now have the knowledge that metabolic health is completely malleable. The best part about this, is that you don’t have to wait for things to change – you can actively go forth and improve it! Start with building muscle, eating protein, focusing on stress management, and balancing your gut health. All of these actions are completely attainable, and just waiting for you to take control.
Through the construction of a healthy, sustainable lifestyle, you can not only become the exception to the current statistics on metabolic health. You can actually help to change them in the long run. Incorporate nutrition, physical exercise, mental health, gut health, and self care, and you will surely be on a path to improvement, wellness, and good metabolic health!