We’ve discussed what metabolic health is — the body's ability to process energy efficiently and effectively — and how we are currently in a metabolic health crisis. But how do we actually measure metabolic health?
Metabolic health is defined by optimal levels of 5 clinical markers: blood sugar levels, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference .
Both the standalone values and the variability of these markers play crucial roles in deciphering your metabolic health.
It’s important to note that all 5 of these markers are interrelated — meaning that having unhealthy levels of one marker makes you more likely to have unhealthy levels of the other markers . It’s also crucial that you may not necessarily “look” metabolically unhealthy, but may still be impacted by these markers of metabolic health .
On the positive side, the specific tips we’ll talk about to improve any one of the markers are likely to improve all of them.
1. Blood glucose levels
Blood glucose reflects the sugar present in your blood, primarily from the food you consume . A healthy range for blood glucose levels typically lies between 70 and 100 mg/dL (3.9 and 5.6 mmol/L, respectively) when fasting.
Numerous factors like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress can influence glucose levels — and are what Veri considers to be the Four Pillars of metabolic health. Maintaining stable blood sugar has a range of benefits, from better mood and energy levels to improved hormone health.
How to lower blood glucose levels
Adopting a diet low in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates, but high in fiber, can significantly reduce blood sugar levels. You can also consider taking supplements that naturally help to lower blood glucose.
Regular physical activity improves insulin sensitivity and aids in glucose regulation. Even just walking on a consistent basis can have a significant positive impact.
Triglycerides are a form of dietary fat found in the bloodstream and stored in fat tissue . Ideal levels measured in blood are less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Heart health and metabolic health are tightly connected, and high levels of triglycerides are related to cardiovascular disease . Alcohol consumption, smoking, low physical activity levels, high sugar intake, obesity, and untreated diabetes can elevate triglyceride levels [5, 6].
How to lower triglycerides
Eliminating or reducing alcohol is one of the first steps in lowering triglycerides . Alcohol is known to impair your liver’s ability to break down fats, while also encouraging the production of triglyceride-carrying molecules — both of these lead to increased levels of blood triglycerides . It’s also helpful to reduce consumption of refined carbs and high-glycemic foods, while increasing fiber intake. Adding in omega-3 fatty acids, from food or supplements, has been shown to be very beneficial for lowering triglyceride levels. Sources of omega-3s include fatty fish, like tuna or sardines, chia seeds and flax seeds, and algae.
3. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
Cholesterol is a hot topic in heart health and metabolic health, and can be confusing. Put simply, HDL cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol, which carries away LDL, the "bad" cholesterol . A good level of HDL is 40 mg/dL and an optimal level is 60 mg/dL or higher [9, 10].
Factors such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and a diet high in processed saturated fats can negatively influence HDL levels .
How to raise HDL cholesterol
Unlike the other four markers of metabolic health, the goal is actually to raise HDL cholesterol.
Similar to improving triglyceride levels, incorporating healthy fats like omega-3s can increase HDL levels. Although saturated fats aren’t as bad for health as previously thought, replacing saturated fats in your diet with polyunsaturated fats has been shown to positively affect health. Adding in plant oils, nuts, or seeds is a good way to increase your intake of polyunsaturated fats.
Engaging in exercise and quitting smoking can also boost HDL levels. When it comes to physical activity, a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is actually best for heart and metabolic health.
4. Blood pressure
Blood pressure measures the force exerted by blood against arterial walls, given in two measurements — systolic pressure and diastolic pressure . Systolic pressure is the higher of the two numbers and measures the force when the heart beats and contracts to pump blood to the body. Diastolic pressure, on the other hand, is the lower number and represents the force when the heart is at rest between beats.
Healthy blood pressure is generally considered to be at or below 120/80 mmHg (systolic of 120 mmHg and diastolic of 80 mmHg), whereas high blood pressure is higher than 130/80 mmHg .
Stress, excessive salt intake, alcohol consumption, smoking, poor sleep, and genetics are common factors that can increase blood pressure .
How to lower blood pressure
Consuming the Mediterranean Diet or the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) has been shown to help lower blood pressure . The significant positive effects of these diets are due to the high fiber, low refined carbs, low sodium, and the many micronutrients that are great for heart health.
5. Waist circumference
Waist circumference gauges abdominal fat, which is an indicator of the fat around vital organs (visceral fat) and under the skin (subcutaneous fat, or “visible” fat).
A healthy waist circumference is considered to be less than 40 inches for men and less than 35 inches for non-pregnant women . Genetics, diet, and physical activity are determinants in waist circumference — in addition to the other four markers we’ve discussed — that can help with weight loss.
How to lower waist circumference
Decreasing your waist circumference relates to improving your body composition. A combination of aerobic exercise and strength training has been proven to be effective and is generally good for overall metabolic health and healthspan. Research shows it is not necessarily the amount, type, or intensity of exercise that helps lose weight, it’s about exercising consistently along with healthy diet choices that help you lose fat and retain muscle mass .
- Blood glucose levels — and their variability — are a driver of metabolic health. Eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables while reducing processed food consumption (as well as exercising regularly) can help maintain levels.
- Triglycerides, HDL ("good" cholesterol), and blood pressure are all aspects of heart health and metabolic health. They are heavily influenced by alcohol, smoking, stress, and sugar consumption.
- Manage your stress levels, salt intake, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and sleep hygiene to improve blood pressure.
- Waist circumference is indicative of visceral fat and is a gauge of body composition. Aerobic and strength exercises can help you manage your waist circumference.
- These five markers of metabolic health are impacted by and can be managed with the Four Pillars: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management.
- Knowing how food, activity, stress, and sleep impact your individual body – and blood sugar levels – is most important and can be monitored with a CGM.