What is Metabolism?
Our metabolism involves a series of chemical reactions, including the conversion of stored nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, and protein into energy. This conversion of food into energy happens when energy-storing molecules, known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), captures the energy released from the breakdown of food molecules and releases it as fuel for cell growth, maturation, cell breakdown and repair. You can think of ATP like a battery that gets recharged by the food you eat and then releases energy throughout the day so that you can do the things that you love. Our bodies need this energy to do everything from moving to thinking to growing.
What is Metabolic Health and why is it important?
Metabolic health is key to our wellbeing. When our metabolic system is working properly, we can process and generate energy in our body, allowing each of our cells to work properly. When we have poor metabolic health, our bodies cannot function properly. This impacts our brain function, energy, memory, mood, skin health, and fertility. Poor metabolic health even puts us at elevated risk for chronic disease.
By making smart lifestyle decisions, such as getting enough sleep,1 engaging in physical activity,2 managing stress, and making informed dietary choices,34 you can achieve optimal metabolic health. Metabolic health is linked to numerous benefits, including improvements in immunity,5 sexual health,6 including fertility, cognitive wellbeing,7 including improved recall and memory, physical stamina,8 including sustained energy throughout the day and endurance while exercising, mental health,9 including decreased depression and more stable moods, and skin appearance, including less acne10 and fewer wrinkles.11
What are the five markers of Metabolic Health?
Metabolic health is defined as having normal levels in the following five markers without needing medication:
- fasting blood sugar £100 mg/dL,
- triglycerides <150 mg/dL,
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol ³40 mg/dL for men and ³50 mg/dL for women,
- blood pressure <130/85 mm Hg,
- waist circumference <35 inches for women and <40 inches for men.
What Is Metabolic Syndrome?
The opposite state of Metabolic health is called “Metabolic Syndrome”. When our metabolic system breaks down, we can have abnormal levels in blood sugar, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure and or waist circumference. Metabolic syndrome is when we have at least three markers in an abnormal range. These risk factors include having:
- high fasting blood sugar. Mildly high blood sugar may be an early sign of diabetes, known as prediabetes.
- high triglyceride level. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood.
- low HDL cholesterol level. HDL is sometimes called the "good" cholesterol because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries.
- high blood pressure. If your blood pressure stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to other health problems.
- a large waistline, also called abdominal obesity or "having an apple shape." Too much fat around the stomach is a greater risk factor for heart disease than too much fat in other parts of the body.
The more factors you have, the higher your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Nearly nine in ten Americans display some degree of metabolic dysfunction.12
What Causes Metabolic Syndrome?
- Overweight and obesity
- An inactive lifestyle
- Insulin resistance, a condition in which the body cannot use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that helps move blood sugar into your cells to give them energy. Insulin resistance can lead to high blood sugar levels.
- Age. Your risk as you age.
- Genetics, ethnicity, and family history
What does Sugar (glucose) have to do with it?
The amount of sugar in our blood, our blood glucose levels, is one of the primary factors associated with metabolic functioning and metabolic health. When there is a normal level of glucose in our blood, insulin, the primary anabolic hormone involved in the use of glucose and the storage of excess glucose in the form of fat, is released by our pancreas. Insulin regulates the fat storage process by ensuring that the muscles and liver get filled up with glycogen first, to be used for more immediate energy use, and then using the excess glucose for future energy use, turning it into triglycerides to be stored as fat cells around the body.
When we eat too much sugar and carbohydrates, we are essentially putting too much glucose into our bloodstream, triggering a cascade of adverse metabolic processes.
- Our cells become deaf to the effects of insulin, a process known as insulin resistance, preventing glucose from entering our cells and causing our blood glucose levels to remain high. Insulin resistance impedes our body’s ability to effectively use glucose for immediate energy. Our body then begins to convert the excess glucose into fat cells, oftentimes resulting in abdominal adiposity. Waist circumference, a simple way to assess abdominal adiposity, is a strong predictor of poor cardiovascular and metabolic health and even death.13
- Excess sugar in our bloodstream also triggers our liver to make more low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a fatty substance that sticks to and clogs artery walls, causing strokes and heart attacks.
- Additionally, high blood glucose levels activate the sympathetic nervous system, causing our heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Persistent high blood pressure can damage blood vessels and result in heart attacks and kidney failure.
Initially, glucose-induced metabolic dysfunction can result in inflammation,14 poorer brain function, lower energy levels, depression, and mood swings, among others. Eventually, as the dysfunction progresses, it can result in the development of chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, and fatty liver disease among others.15
Achieve Optimal Metabolic Health with a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet
While there is no one diet to achieve metabolic health, research suggests that the adoption of a whole-food plant-based diet can help promote healthful aging and mitigate the burden of chronic disease.
A whole-food plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, and that minimizes the intake of refined sugar and carbohydrates (e.g., white bread, pasta, white rice, cereals), has been shown to effectively reduce the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease by almost 50% and cut cardiometabolic-related deaths in the United States by half. Even small changes to our diets, such as limiting our consumption of excess sugar and eating foods rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, that do not spike our blood glucose and insulin, such as legumes and beans, non-starchy high fiber vegetables, some fruits, nuts and seeds, and animal and soy protein, can show huge improvements in metabolic health and have been tied to increased life expectancy.16171819
The Bottom Line
Achieving optimal metabolic health involves making well-informed dietary decisions, such as the adoption of a whole-food plant-based diet. The good news is that these dietary choices are largely in your control and, with practice, will become habits.
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- Corona G, Rastrelli G, Balercia G, et al. Hormonal association and sexual dysfunction in patients with impaired fasting glucose: a cross-sectional and longitudinal study. J Sex Med. 2012;9(6):1669-1680.
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- Godos J, Currenti W, Angelino D, et al. Diet and mental health: Review of the recent updates on molecular mechanisms. Antioxidants. 2020;9(4):346.
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- Ross R, Neeland IJ, Yamashita S, et al. Waist circumference as a vital sign in clinical practice: a Consensus Statement from the IAS and ICCR Working Group on Visceral Obesity. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2020;16(3):177-189.
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