Your food choices, metabolism, microbiome, exercise, sleep, stress, and mental health — as well as your age, sex, and genes — all shape your unique metabolic health.
Some experts say that metabolic health means the absence of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that contribute to the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and other metabolic diseases.
The risk factors for metabolic syndrome include high blood pressure, high blood fat, low levels of good cholesterol, high blood sugar, and a large waistline.
But other experts argue that metabolic health means more than that. Some say that to be metabolically healthy means that a person has good health overall and a low risk of developing metabolic diseases.
At ZOE, we believe there is even more to metabolic health and that there are a number of things you can do to look after yours.
In this article, you will learn more about what metabolic health means, what happens when your metabolic health is not in great shape, and what you can do to improve it.
What does metabolic health mean?
There is no official definition of the term metabolic health. At ZOE, we have observed that a large part of your metabolic health is down to having a healthy metabolism.
This means that your body can digest and absorb nutrients from the food that you eat without unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, blood fat, inflammation, and insulin.
It’s important to avoid these big spikes because they can contribute to the unfavorable long-term impact of food on your health, such as high cholesterol, high levels of body fat, a large waist circumference, and high blood pressure.
Having good metabolic health lowers your risk of getting metabolic diseases.
In other words, to be metabolically healthy means that your body is able to respond to food in a beneficial way that reduces your risk of conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
We believe that a combination of factors make up your individual metabolic health, some of which you can influence and others that are set.
You cannot change your age, sex, or your genes. But you can modify your diet, gut microbiome, weight, sleep, and exercise, and you can address your stress and mental health.
Who is metabolically unhealthy?
A few years ago, a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina published a research paper that said that only 12.2% of adults in the United States are metabolically healthy.
In their study, they measured waist circumference, fasting and long-term blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fats and cholesterol to assess metabolic health.
Crucially, they noted that taking any medication for diseases related to these measures, like heart disease or type 2 diabetes, meant that the person wasn’t metabolically healthy.
Having a moderate weight doesn't automatically guarantee good metabolic health.
“Less than one-third of normal weight adults were metabolically healthy,” the researchers wrote in the paper. They added that 92% of people with overweight and 99.5% of people with obesity were metabolically unhealthy.
This research focused on fasting blood sugar and blood fat. But at ZOE, we know that how your blood fat, blood sugar, and insulin levels change after you eat is important, too.
The scientific name for this is postprandial responses. Put more simply, it’s a measure of how your body responds to food in the short term.
What happens when metabolic health is poor?
ZOE’s PREDICT program — the largest nutritional studies of their kind, with over 10,000 participants — has found that we each respond differently to the foods that we eat.
Some people’s bodies find it harder to keep their blood sugar and insulin levels from spiking after eating food, while others experience high blood fat levels for long periods after eating. Some people have trouble with both blood sugar and blood fat responses.
Moderate changes in blood sugar, insulin, and blood fat levels after eating are normal, and they are part of the way your body digests and responds to food.
The odd blood sugar spike or long raised blood fat level is not going to do a lot of immediate damage. But over time, these events add up and cause an unhealthy metabolic response.
This can result in a wide range of unfavorable effects on your body — such as inflammation, oxidative stress, and changes in the particles that carry your blood fat — which we call dietary inflammation.
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Bit by bit, these unhealthy responses to food can contribute to low-grade, chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, problems producing enough insulin, and potentially weight gain.
When your metabolic health is poor, you are likely to experience greater variations in your blood fat, blood sugar, and insulin levels after you eat, along with dietary inflammation.
This is not good for your health, and it puts you at greater risk of metabolic syndrome and metabolic diseases.
How can nutrition improve metabolic health?
Changing what you eat can have an impact on your metabolic health. At ZOE, we know that you can reduce large variations in blood sugar, insulin, and blood fat by eating the right foods for your body. This may also lower your chances of chronic inflammation.
A healthy diet should include plenty of unprocessed plant foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds and nuts, and wholegrains, as well as healthy fats, like olive oil.
Aim for 30 different plant foods each week in a variety of colors. Cut down on sweetened drinks, refined grains, and ultra-processed foods.
You can still enjoy these as treats, but filling your plate with healthy food the majority of the time is better for your metabolic health.
It’s not just the food you eat that influences your metabolic health. The trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut and make up your gut microbiome also play a role.
A healthy gut is important for digestion and your overall health. Feed your gut microbes with plenty of high fiber plant foods and fermented foods, like unsweetened live yogurt, aged cheddar, parmesan, Swiss cheeses, kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut.
ZOE’s cutting-edge research makes it possible to go one step further by analyzing your blood sugar and blood fat responses, as well as your gut microbiome, to identify the best foods for your unique body and your metabolic health.
Take our free quiz to find out more.
Sleep and exercise impact metabolic health
In addition to your food choices, there are other ways to improve your metabolic health. How much and how well you sleep can affect the way that your body responds to food.
ZOE scientists and their collaborators recently found that a bad night’s sleep leads to blood sugar spikes after breakfast the next day.
Additionally, after a bad night’s sleep, you are more likely to reach for sugary foods, which can cause unhealthy blood sugar spikes.
In such situations, it’s worth steering clear of sugary food and opting for a breakfast that is high in fat or high in protein instead.
Importantly, the researchers found that how early you go to sleep had a greater impact on your blood sugar control than how long you sleep in total.
Bringing your bedtime forward can help you to avoid blood sugar spikes after breakfast the following morning.
ZOE’s PREDICT program also found that exercising regularly is good for blood sugar control.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two activities that strengthen the muscles at least twice per week. Any physical activity is better than nothing, and you can break your exercise down into small bursts as short as 5 minutes.
Walking, yoga, gardening, and pushing a lawn mower are all good options. Try to find what you enjoy the most and what you can fit around your work and other activities.
Getting good quality sleep and keeping active are great ways to look after your metabolic health.
Address stress and mental health
Research has found links between metabolic health and stress and mental health conditions.
This includes people who live with anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
The exact mechanism at play is not clear, but it’s likely a combination of changes in the gut microbiome, medication, genetics, diet, and other lifestyle factors, like smoking and alcohol, and lack of medical care.
If you are living with a mental health condition or are experiencing chronic stress, consider talking to a healthcare professional about your metabolic health.
Your metabolic health plays an important role in your risk of metabolic diseases, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, and liver disease.
Looking after your metabolic health is important for your overall health.
A number of factors influence your metabolic health. You can’t change your age, sex, or your genes, but you can make changes to your diet, sleep, and activity levels.
These changes can all help you avoid big spikes in blood sugar, insulin, and blood fat.
Chronic stress and mental health can also affect your metabolic health. Working with a health professional to identify what works best for you can improve your metabolic health and your overall health.
No two people’s metabolic health is the same. At ZOE, we analyze your blood sugar and blood fat, along with your gut microbiome, and tell you the best foods for your body.
Take the free ZOE quiz to find out how understanding your unique responses to food can help you improve your metabolic health.
Cause, consequence or coincidence: The relationship between psychiatric disease and metabolic syndrome. Translational Metabolic Syndrome Research. (2018).
Gut microbiota in human metabolic health and disease. Nature Reviews Microbiology. (2020).
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Metabolically healthy obesity: epidemiology, mechanisms, and clinical implications. The Lancet. Diabetes and endocrinology. (2013).
Metabolic syndrome in psychiatric patients: overview, mechanisms, and implications. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. (2018).
Prevalence of optimal metabolic health in American adults: National health and nutrition examination survey 2009–2016. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. (2019).
The human stress response. Nature Reviews Endocrinology. (2019).
The many ways exercise helps your heart. (n.d.).