Metabolic Health

What Is Metabolic Health? A Comprehensive Guide + Quiz

5 minutes read

We’re in a metabolic health crisis that’s only poised to get worse. Just 12% of Americans are considered to be metabolically healthy, and among those who are on the sick end of the spectrum, many don’t know what metabolic health is or how they can make lasting, sustainable improvements to their well-being [1].

But what exactly is metabolic health? Here, we’ll walk through the definition that researchers have agreed upon, explain what’s missing from current clinical guidance, and finally offer strategies to help you take control of your metabolic health through simple lifestyle changes.

What is metabolic health?

From a clinical perspective, metabolic health is defined as having five measurements — waist circumference, fasting blood glucose, systolic blood pressure, triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol — within a set range. Scientists have identified these measurements as being strongly indicative of future risk for developing conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

You may be wondering if metabolic health is interchangeable with metabolism, your body's process of breaking down the foods you eat and converting them into energy. They're strongly associated with each other, but not quite the same thing.

Whereas metabolism is all the ways in which your body produces and uses energy to keep you alive, metabolic health is how efficiently this process is working. When your metabolism is dysregulated, your metabolic health suffers as well.

The 5 clinical measurements of metabolic health

As mentioned, scientists have identified five key measurements to evaluate metabolic health in a clinical setting [2]:

  1. Waist circumference of ≥102 cm (≥40 in) in men and ≥88 cm (≥35 in) in women
  2. Fasting blood glucose of ≥100 mg/dL
  3. Systolic blood pressure of >120 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure >80 mmHg (depending on age)
  4. Triglycerides >150 mg/dL
  5. HDL cholesterol of <40mg/dL in men, and 50mg/dL in women

There are a number of factors that can cause you to fall into the unhealthy range for one of these criteria, including poor nutrition, insulin resistance, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, inconsistent sleep, and chronic stress or inflammation.

If you meet 3 out of the 5 criteria above, you have what’s known as metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance syndrome. Metabolic syndrome increases your risk of developing chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. One out of every three Americans experiences metabolic syndrome, which can significantly reduce your quality and length of life [3].

Metabolic health is a spectrum

The clinical definition of metabolic health is helpful, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture.

That’s because a number or statistic often portrays metabolic health in binary terms, making it easy for you to believe that you’re metabolically healthy as long as you fall within a certain range or limit. 

In other words, even if you don’t have metabolic syndrome, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re metabolically healthy. That’s because metabolic health isn’t binary — it’s a spectrum. A lot can happen between being in a state of good health and developing diabetes and obesity, and oftentimes the symptoms of metabolic sickness go unnoticed or don’t show up until your condition is severe. Being out of the normal or healthy range for even just one of the criteria above can have short- and long-term effects on your health, even if you “feel fine” or don’t experience any visible warning signs.

At Veri, we believe that a better definition captures the entire spectrum of metabolic health, including both the clinical benchmarks and the intangible — but crucially important — aspects of your day-to-day experience.

What’s missing from the clinical definition of metabolic health is variability — the way your glucose levels fluctuate throughout the day — which offers more insight into your metabolic health than a one-time test. Glucose variability matters as much as, if not more than, average glucose or fasting glucose, allowing you to understand where you are on the metabolic spectrum. A1C tests and glucometers can't show you your variability — the only way is by wearing a CGM (continuous glucose monitor).

Take our quiz to learn how metabolically healthy you are.

Why does metabolic health matter?

Being metabolically healthy isn’t just a checkbox to increase your likelihood of living longer — it’s a way to improve your chances of enjoying a high quality of life and health throughout your lived years, with minimal suffering from mild and severe illnesses alike. Here’s what metabolic health encompasses from a non-clinical point of view:

1. Increased healthspan and the ability to do what you love 

We’re living longer than we ever have, but our quality of life and health is suffering. Being metabolically healthy increases your healthspan, or the number of years you spend in good health, free from disease, pain, and illness. When you increase your healthspan, you empower yourself to be physically and mentally capable of doing the things you love, even as you age. On the other hand, being metabolically unhealthy can dramatically decrease both your healthspan and lifespan.

2. Low stress

Stress is a natural response to danger that helps you survive. However, chronic stress has a negative effect on your metabolic health, which in turn is correlated with greater levels of inflammation, obesity, and more. Being metabolically healthy involves managing your day-to-day cortisol levels using a toolkit of stress management techniques

3. The ability to adapt for a healthy and enjoyable life

The human body is an incredibly smart and agile machine that can respond quickly to events in order to maintain homeostasis, or physiological equilibrium [4]. When you’re metabolically healthy, your body has greater metabolic flexibility, meaning it can efficiently break down nutrients in food to use as energy, recovers well, and performs the way we need it to in order to function well. This, in turn, can help you live a fuller, richer life and have the vitality to do the things you enjoy.

4. A nutritious and diverse diet

Nutrition has the most significant impact on your metabolic health. Eating a diet that’s full of fiber-rich vegetables and fruit, lean protein, and healthy fats is not only integral to a healthy lifestyle, but the opposite (eating lots of ultra-processed foods and refined sugars) can have a detrimental effect on your metabolic health. 

What’s the relationship between glucose, insulin, and metabolic health?

Being metabolically unhealthy is often correlated with reduced insulin sensitivity or even insulin resistance, a condition where your cells stop responding to insulin. This can disrupt glucose regulation and puts you at risk for a number of metabolic health problems.

But what exactly does this all mean, and how do these pieces fit together?

Your body’s preferred energy source is the simple sugar glucose, which is found in carbohydrates. Your digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose, which enters your bloodstream and travels to different cells, where it’s transformed into ATP (energy).

The hormone insulin is the key to understanding the relationship between glucose and metabolic health. 

When you eat carbs, your blood glucose levels increase, triggering your pancreas to release insulin, which transports glucose to the cells and tissues that need it and unlocks those cells so that glucose can enter and be converted into ATP.

The proper functioning of insulin is essential to glucose regulation and metabolic health. But factors like nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress — Veri’s Four Pillars of health — can affect your insulin sensitivity, or how readily your cells respond to insulin.

When you eat foods high in sugar, your blood glucose levels spike rapidly, taxing your pancreas as it produces a large amount of insulin to bring those high glucose levels back down to normal. When this is repeated consistently over time, your cells may lose their responsiveness to insulin (i.e., become insulin resistant), a condition that affects 4 out of 10 non-diabetic American adults [5].

Why does this matter? When you have insulin resistance, you tend to have higher-than-normal levels of circulating glucose, even while fasting. As mentioned, fasting glucose levels are one of the five measurements of metabolic health, and when they’re out of range, you increase your risk of metabolic health problems and even metabolic syndrome.

On a day-to-day level, insulin resistance can have a number of effects on your well-being, including:

How to improve your metabolic health

If you’re wondering what you can do to make lasting changes to your metabolic health, the good news is you can improve your insulin sensitivity with a few simple tweaks to your diet and lifestyle. But it all starts with understanding your unique biology and what works for you.

At Veri, we believe that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. When it comes to the five clinical measurements of metabolic health, you can easily ask your healthcare provider during your next check-up to measure your waist circumference and test your HDL levels, triglyceride levels, blood pressure, and average fasting glucose levels using an A1C test.

But what happens between your routine doctor’s appointments?

We know that glucose and insulin play a key role in metabolic health, and monitoring your glucose levels is one of the best ways that you can empower yourself to make better diet and lifestyle choices. While an A1C test at the doctor’s office can provide you with a three-month snapshot of your average glucose levels, it won’t tell you anything about your glucose variability — or how much your levels fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, people with the same A1C results can have vastly different metabolic risk profiles.

This is where a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) (paired with an app like Veri) comes in. Veri tracks your glucose levels in real-time and allows you to look inside your body and see what’s working for your health. Using the data and insights provided by Veri, you can connect the dots of your own metabolic health picture and build lasting habits in each of the Four Pillars to compound over time into better health.

Building healthy habits in the Four Pillars

While a CGM is a critical component in understanding your body’s personal responses to diet and lifestyle, you can start applying the principles of good metabolic health today. Here are key ways to get started, as well as links to our in-depth guides with tips and hacks you can implement today.

  • Nutrition. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet composed of colorful vegetables, fiber, lean proteins, and healthy fats — while avoiding processed foods and refined carbs — is the most important to way to stabilize your glucose levels. You can also experiment with meal timing (i.e., when you eat) to see its effects on your glucose levels and insulin sensitivity.
  • Exercise. Getting enough exercise — especially resistance or strength training — is key for heart health (which is inseparable from metabolic health) and increasing muscle mass. This can help regulate hunger levels, glucose regulation, and body composition, as well as improve insulin sensitivity.
  • Sleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene (getting enough sleep and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule) is critical to metabolic health, as bad sleep can make you less insulin sensitive.
  • Stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, makes you temporarily insulin resistant. This is fine when you’re experiencing short-term (or acute) stress, but chronic stress leads to increased insulin resistance and inflammation, which can wreak havoc on your metabolic health.

Key takeaways

  • Clinically, metabolic health is judged according to five measurements: large waist circumference, high fasting blood glucose, high systolic blood pressure, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol.
  • At Veri, we believe that metabolic health means increased healthspan, the ability to move and do what you love, low levels of stress, a nutritious and balanced diet, and the ability to adapt to an enjoyable and healthy life.
  • Glucose and insulin are the missing links in the metabolic health picture. Insulin resistance or loss of insulin sensitivity occurs when you repeatedly spike your blood glucose levels via a diet rich in processed carbs, a sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep hygiene, and unmanaged stress. 
  • Insulin resistance is linked to higher fasting blood glucose levels (a marker of poor metabolic health), but may also be correlated with worse body composition, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels.
  • You can reverse insulin resistance — and improve metabolic health — by monitoring your glucose levels and glucose variability using a CGM in conjunction with diet and lifestyle changes.

References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30484738/ 
  2. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/metabolic-syndrome 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5866840/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7076167/ 
  5. https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/107/1/e25/6362635?login=false

Written by: James Han
Reviewed by: Emily Johnson, MSc RD

Table of Contents

  • What is metabolic health?
  • The 5 clinical measurements of metabolic health
  • Metabolic health is a spectrum
  • Take our quiz to learn how metabolically healthy you are.
  • Why does metabolic health matter?
  • What’s the relationship between glucose, insulin, and metabolic health?
  • How to improve your metabolic health
  • Key takeaways

Share:

Similar articles