Written by: Michelle Severs, MS
Reviewed by: Emily J., MSc RD
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Metabolic health around the world is on the decline, while insulin resistance, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome are on the rise. Luckily, anyone can take control of their metabolic health by learning to identify its markers and improve them through small, day-to-day changes.
Life expectancy is twice as high as in 1920, but our metabolic health has never been worse. Over half of the world’s population is predicted to be overweight or obese by 2035, and one out of 10 people globally is living with a form of diabetes [1, 2].
More than ever, our lifestyle has become metabolically unsustainable. Processed foods are often the cheapest and most convenient food options and make up 20-60% of the average person’s diet. One in 3 women and one in 4 men don’t get enough physical activity . And powerful industries like Big Food, Big Pharma, and healthcare make it difficult for millions of Americans to access nutritious produce and take preventative measures for their well-being.
The sum of these factors is destroying our metabolic health, and we don’t even realize it. So how do we get back on track?
Metabolism is the sum of all the chemical processes in your body that are necessary to live — in other words, how your body takes in and uses energy to power all of its systems.
Metabolic health is how efficiently your metabolism works. When your metabolic health is good, you feel more energized, alert, and better at handling stress.
Like a car engine that relies on good fuel to run smoothly, your metabolism needs good food sources to function optimally. When you’re metabolically healthy, your body can effectively handle different forms of fuel, like sugars and fat. Even in fasted or full states, our bodies can easily metabolize these sources and work efficiently. To monitor metabolic health, doctors and health professionals typically look at markers like:
To achieve good metabolic health, it’s important to maintain stable levels of these markers. But apart from the occasional doctor’s check-up, how can you gain insight into your day-to-day health — and make the pivots necessary to prevent the onset of long-term disease?
One of the key ways to understand your metabolic health and get an idea of what’s happening in your body is your blood sugar levels.
While your levels will rise and fall normally throughout the day based on your diet and lifestyle, constantly experiencing high blood sugar levels and high variability (i.e., big spikes followed by crashes outside of the normal range) can desensitize your body to insulin, the hormone that helps glucose be absorbed. This can increase your risk of lethargy, mood swings, hormonal problems, skin issues, and even more serious conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart problems.
Metabolic health is on the decline — it’s estimated that approximately 46.5% of adults worldwide experience insulin resistance and that 352.1 million people have prediabetes, where blood sugar levels are high but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes [4, 5].
Approximately 96 million Americans have prediabetes and around 80% of them aren’t aware they have it . On top of that, 1 in 3 American adults has obesity, which is associated with a number of metabolic disturbances from glucose dysregulation to increased inflammation [7, 8]. Another study found that 37% of individuals had metabolic syndrome, which means having at least three of these symptoms: high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, and/or obesity .
But your metabolic health isn’t just a statistic or abstract concept.
It affects your day-to-day life: symptoms like fatigue, lethargy, and poor sleep are tied to metabolic irregularities like high blood sugar levels and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, a condition that affects almost 1 in 4 Americans over the age of 20, underpins many metabolic health conditions and can lead to comorbidities such as high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, and obesity .
What’s important to keep in mind is that these metabolic irregularities are driven by specific choices you make in your diet and lifestyle — including how much you exercise, when and how long you sleep, and even how you manage your stress. While taking a week off from exercising or eating sugar now and then won’t harm your metabolic health, your everyday habits compound over time and can lead to metabolic problems.
In the long run, metabolic dysfunction can even manifest in serious, long-term conditions like Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cancer — and make aging painful and challenging.
The reason it’s critical to pay attention to your metabolic health is that many people who are metabolically unhealthy don’t even know about it, since metabolic health is a spectrum and doesn’t always have noticeable symptoms.
The most common pillars underpinning poor metabolic health are poor diet, lack of exercise, bad sleep, and chronic stress.
Even with medical advances such as metabolic drugs and more food options than ever before, the metabolic health crisis shows no signs of slowing. National data shows that the percentage of people with good metabolic health declined from 19.9% in 2009 to 12.2% in 2016 . A more recent study in 2022 revealed the percentage of Americans with good metabolic health dropped precipitously to 6.8% .
Although some of these are individual lifestyle choices, societal forces are at play too.
Big industries play a key role in how we make choices about our health — including the food we buy, our attitudes toward preventative health measures, and even the way we approach treatment.
These industries often have powerful lobbying efforts and big-budget marketing strategies that make them inescapable. In the case of Big Food especially, there often there are years of behind-the-scenes efforts to engineer options that tap into our hardwired preference for sugar and fat to make sure we keep coming back for more.
The food industry drives much of the food available to consumers, though brands’ goals are often profits over your health. Made up of international food and beverage companies with massive marketing power, Big Food has saturated the market with cheap, highly processed foods loaded with salt, sugar, and fat.
Processed foods, such as shelf-stable snacks, ready-made foods, and sugary beverages, are made with specific ingredients in specific ratios that are appealing to us and cause us to crave them even more.
Unfortunately, processed foods tend to worsen our metabolic health because they are simultaneously unhealthy and don’t satisfy hunger — leading you to eat more of them without feeling full. It makes sense, then, that frequent processed food consumption is associated with Type 2 diabetes and obesity .
With office jobs and cars, physical activity is no longer naturally built into our days. And given the work-focused nature of our society, it’s difficult to find time and energy to meet the recommended amount of daily exercise.
In fact, in the U.S., about 1 in 2 Americans don’t get enough aerobic activity (about 150 minutes per week) . One study showed that sedentary behavior, like sitting for long periods of time, was associated with a higher metabolic risk . Less physical activity means Americans are at greater risk for weight gain, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression, and poor sleep quality .
Prioritizing sleep can be challenging, but not getting enough sleep can have devastating effects on our hormones and metabolism.
A few studies have shown that restricted sleep lowered levels of leptin, the satiety hormone, and increased levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone .
As a result of the heightened hunger levels, study participants were more likely to choose sweet, salty, and starchy foods. Eating these foods creates a body blood sugar storm and can lead to unhealthy weight gain. Research also suggests that sleeping less than 8 hours per night is associated with a higher BMI .
A healthy dose of stress (which is activated by the hormone cortisol) can vitalize the metabolism. However, chronic, high stress can interrupt and potentially damage body processes and structures.
Stress is associated with a 1.1 to 1.4 greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity . Chronic stress response heightens cortisol levels, which can trigger continuous blood glucose release and insulin stimulation. Over time, the body loses its sensitivity to insulin, leading to high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and greater fat deposition.
Just as you would properly fuel and care for your car, the key to improving your metabolic health is in your hands and making small day-to-day lifestyle shifts. Regardless of what your blood sugar is, there are several ways to take charge of your metabolic health.
Be aware that big food and beverage companies don’t always have your health interests at heart, as they rely on cheap, unhealthy food sources to produce inexpensive, energy-dense foods . Ignore their appeals to you by recognizing marketing tactics, like false advertisements that foods are “natural” (which doesn’t mean anything) and always flip to the back of a product and read the ingredients label.
With a few small lifestyle changes, you can reduce metabolic risk factors such as high blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
Enriching your diet with whole fruits and vegetables that you like, swapping out sugar-sweetened beverages for water, and scanning food labels for added salt, sugar, and fat content are simple ways to fight big food and improve blood sugar.
Exercise also has a potent effect on metabolism. Even for people with diabetes, aerobic exercise, resistance training, or both, were effective at lowering HbA1C levels and insulin resistance . Exercise improves insulin sensitivity, glucose utilization, and hormone signaling . Research suggests that about 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise can reduce Type 2 diabetes risk by 30% .
Your blood sugar is one of the key markers of good metabolic health. But most people only see their A1C levels once per year. Unfortunately, A1C is only a 3-month average of your glucose levels, so it doesn’t take daily variability into account and doesn’t show you the real-time impact of food, sleep, exercise, and stress.
By tapping into your blood sugar with a CGM, you can get a better picture of your metabolic health and get objective data on what habits are working, and which aren’t.
Veri takes this one step further by giving you personalized insights and guidance to help you make sense of the data. Veri shows you which food and lifestyle choices are serving your body and which aren’t, then guides you to build lasting habits that will compound over time into better metabolic health. You can even track improvements in your Metabolic Healthspan, the period of your life spent in good metabolic health.
Although there are things we can do to improve our own metabolic health, individuals alone cannot single-handedly change the food system. However, there are things we can advocate for to make healthy foods and good metabolic health the norm.
First, nutrition education at a young age may empower people to be more knowledgeable about nutritious foods and to identify harmful additives .
Calling for subsidizing healthy foods to make them more readily available to consumers shows promise in positively affecting eating behavior . Combined, individual and societal changes can have a beneficial ripple effect on the market, reinforcing the necessity of nutritious foods for metabolic health for all.