The fact that most people aren’t as healthy as they could be isn’t exactly a secret. Lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and sleep all affect our overall health, and with 93% of American adults not meeting the threshold to be considered metabolically healthy, it’s harder than ever to ignore the trends.
Our society would benefit from a public health intervention, but we don’t have to rely on large-scale policy changes. Because real change starts with the individual. Prioritizing metabolic health is something we can all do to help us take back our health and live better lives.
What is metabolic health?
Metabolic health is a simple way to see where your overall health stands. It is determined by these factors:
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
The goal is to have normal levels in all five areas (without medication), something that is becoming increasingly rare in our society.
There is hope for us, however. Improving our metabolic health measurements can go a long way in helping us live better, healthier lives—and it’s never too late to get started.
The big 3 for metabolic health
Let’s start by establishing a baseline. Good metabolic health is usually linked to the following factors:
Most of us already know what we need to do here.
A healthy diet consists of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The more plant-based foods you eat, the better.
The standard recommendation for exercise is 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 30 minutes per day. And that’s just the workouts—it’s also important to make sure you move throughout the day. Because sadly, no matter how awesome your workouts are, you’ll cancel out a lot of your hard work if you spend the rest of your day sitting in front of a screen.
As for healthy weight management, it’s not the number on the scale that matters. A healthy body looks different for everyone. In most cases, as long as you’re focusing on eating the right foods and staying physically active, a healthy weight will follow.
6 other tips to improve metabolic health
Say you’ve already got the basics down (cheers to you!) or you want to focus on one simple thing to get you started (also cheers to you!). Here are some less well-known tips for metabolic health that can help you get your health on track.
1. Study the nutrition labels
Prepackaged food is part of life for all of us, even if you’re lucky enough to get most of your food straight from a local farm or garden. So make sure you’re paying attention to those nutrition labels, because they can tell you a lot—and help you make better food choices.
First off, ignore any claims made on the front of the package (low fat, real fruit, gluten free, etc.). The useful info is all on the back.
A few ingredients you’ll want to avoid, especially if they’re listed as one of the first three ingredients:
Anything with the word “enriched” or “refined” in front of it.
Sugar and its many alternative names (e.g., any kind of syrup, honey, caramel, molasses, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin, dextrin, etc.).
Oil, especially vegetable, palm, sunflower, soybean, and canola oils. (Avocado and extra-virgin olive oils are okay.)
Also, if the ingredient list is extra long (2–3 lines), this is a good indicator that it’s a highly processed food and is best left on the shelf.
2. Move after meals
After a large meal, few things sound better than settling into your favorite chair and watching some comfort TV or taking a much-deserved nap.
But you’ll be much better off if you move around for a bit first. Movement gets the blood flowing and helps the body digest food more efficiently, and also helps mediate glucose and insulin levels.
You don’t need to run a 5K the second you clear your plate to get the metabolic health benefits. A five-minute walk, clearing the table and cleaning the kitchen, wrestling with the kids on the floor for a few minutes—any of these activities help your body out when it needs the extra movement most.
3. Get better sleep
If all these other suggestions feel like too much work, you have our permission to start with going to bed a little earlier each night. About 1 in 3 adults are consistently sleep deprived, and it’s wrecking our health more than most people realize.
Sleep plays a crucial role in regulating hormones that control hunger and metabolism. Not getting enough can disrupt that delicate balance, and it can also lead to decreased insulin sensitivity.
It can be hard to prioritize sleep in a society that loves productivity, so remember this: being well-rested doesn’t make you lazy. It makes you a healthier human being who has greater potential for a full, balanced, and, yes, productive life.
4. Eat more protein and fiber
Both fiber and protein have a low glycemic index, meaning they do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. They tend to be more filling too, so you’ll be less tempted to overeat. And finally, they take longer to digest, which requires more energy, leading to an increase in metabolism.
Many fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber. Animal products like eggs, meat, and dairy are the most common sources of protein, but there are plenty of protein options if you’re on a vegetarian diet, too.
5. Drink fewer sugary drinks
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your favorite drinks—even if they aren’t alcoholic—will catch up to you some day, and not in a good way. Sugary drinks are a surefire way to cause your blood sugar levels to spike, something we want to avoid for the sake of our metabolic health.
So switch out some of those drinks with water. The more, the better. Water helps with digestion, supports metabolism, helps regulate body temperature, and helps with blood circulation—all things that support metabolic health.
Unimate is a good no-sugar alternative for the days you need an extra boost to keep you going. You can also try something like Super Green +, a drink powder that’s big on nutrients and light on flavor to help keep you hydrated.
6. Give your body regular breaks from food
Food is the fuel that keeps us going, but our bodies need regular breaks from all the work required to turn that food into fuel. Intermittent fasting (fasting for at least 12 hours each day) is an excellent way to give our bodies that well-deserved break.
When we’re fasting, the body enters a state known as autophagy, where it recycles damaged cells and produces new ones. Fasting improves insulin sensitivity and allows the body to tap into fat for energy, rather than constantly relying on carbohydrates for energy.
One of the reasons sleep is so important is that it allows our bodies to recover from the toils of daily living. Fasting has similar benefits. You’ll likely see the most benefits from fasting 16 hours a day, but anywhere from 12 to 16 hours has been shown to positively impact metabolic health.
Onward to a healthier future
As you can see, there are many ways to improve metabolic health, and all of them are worth the effort. In addition to reducing your risk for chronic health problems, maintaining good metabolic health can also improve energy levels, physical and mental well-being, and quality of life.
It’s never too late to get started, so start trying out some of these tips today!