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What is metabolic health?

Discover how you can optimize your metabolic health and reduce long term health risks. Find out what is metabolic health, how it is measured and what is metabolic syndrome.

What is metabolism?

Metabolism is the term used for the processes involved in:

  1. the break down of your food,

  2. the conversion of food into energy stores found in your fat tissues, liver and muscle, and

  3. the conversion of stored energy into energy that can be used to help in your daily activities.

This is done by many complex enzymatic and biochemical reactions that start the moment you smell or anticipate food. Your metabolism is influenced by many factors. Change in any of these factors changes your metabolic function and health.

What is Metabolic Health?

All metabolic activity of the body is conducted at the cellular level in the mitochondria, the engine room of every cell in your body.

Metabolism only becomes of concern when it encroaches on your everyday activities. Most often the onset of metabolic dysfunction is insidious. In other words, often you will not realize it is happening until your doctor will sit you down and explain what is going on. Some of the ways that metabolic dysfunction manifests is:

  1. Decreased energy levels

  2. More frequent illness and for longer duration

  3. The emergence of pre-diabetes and diabetes

  4. Low mood, or depression

  5. Cancer

  6. Chronic inflammation

  7. Metabolic syndrome

What Contributes to Metabolic Health?

Metabolic health is influenced by a number of factors including: the types of food you eat, your gut microbiome, and the amount and type of exercise you participate in. It is also influenced by the amount and quality of your sleep, your stress levels and your response to stress. Mental health conditions impact on your metabolic health and so does your age, sex, and your genes.

Some of these factors such as genes, age and sex are unalterable, however there are a number of modifiable lifestyle factors related to a healthy lifestyle which can be changed for metabolic optimization.

There are some inheritable metabolic disorders such as Gaucher’s disease, hereditary haemochromatosis, maple syrup urine disease and phenylketonuria. The management of these disorders requires expert advice

What Are the 7 Markers of Metabolic Health?

Although it is hard to monitor what is happening on the atomic level or cellular level, there are some quick and easy ways for measuring metabolic health to figure out whether you are metabolically healthy or not.

The waist line and body composition.

The waistline is a good marker of intra-abdominal body fat. This is the most harmful kind of fat as it lodges itself around and within the internal organs and secretes pro-inflammatory hormones that interfere with the metabolism.

Men with a waist circumference greater than 94 cm and females with a waist circumference greater than 80 cm have increased metabolic disease risk.

Men with a waist circumference greater than 102 cm and females with a waist circumference greater than 88 cm have a substantially higher metabolic disease risk.

Another helpful way to gauge what is a healthy waist-line is by referring yourself to the waist to hip ratio. Waist to hip ratio is calculated by waist measurement divided by hip measurement.

If the waist to hip ratio is greater than 0.9cm in males or greater than 0.85cm in females then there is a significant increase in risk for metabolic complications.


A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more is generally considered to be associated with poor metabolic health – especially when associated with an increased waist to hip ratio.

If you are in this range, it means that your weight may increase your risk of developing chronic metabolic disease.

Blood sugar levels

If your fasting blood sugar is greater than 100 mg/dL, it means that you have diabetes or are at risk for developing diabetes. If you have a high blood sugar, you will likely need to have an oral glucose tolerance test and an HBA1C to determine the presence of diabetes.

Blood sugar control is influenced by diet, exercise, movement and sleep.

Blood pressure

A systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 130 or more, or a diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of 80 or more, is considered high blood pressure.

If it is high, you are at an increased risk of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.

Blood fat levels (triglycerides).

Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. Normal blood fats (triglycerides) are levels lower than 150 mg/dL. Higher levels indicate an increased risk for heart disease.

Level of good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL)

HDL cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol that helps remove LDL cholesterol from your arteries. A level below 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women is considered low.

LDL cholesterol

LDL cholesterol is the “bad” cholesterol that can build up in your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease. A high cholesterol level is a level of LDL 130 mg/dL or more.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress increases low-grade inflammation in the body that can increase your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. It can also make it harder to lose weight.

Why is good metabolic health important?

Maintaining and improving metabolic health reduces the risk of many chronic metabolic diseases, but also is important for maintaining energy levels, mental health, and contributes to restful sleep. It also ultimately reduces the risk of many chronic illnesses that are associated with metabolic dysfunction.

Metabolic health and Energy

Mitochondria are found in every cell in the body are sometimes referred to as the engine where. Metabolic dysfunction may exhibits itself in the form of poor brain function, impaired memory, lowered activity output and increased risk of chronic disease. Overall, most of the time you are always feeling tired with no real reason for being tired.

Metabolic health and Mood

A literature review of diets that promoted metabolic health researched the effects of implementing a Mediterranean diet with fish oil on people that self-reported depressive symptoms. The group that received Mediterranean diet intervention where they consumed more vegetables, fruits, nut, legumes, wholegrains and reduced their intake of unhealthy snacks, found a greater reduction in depressive symptoms at 3 months.

Metabolic health and Restful sleep

Insufficient sleep is common. One review found, approximately one third of adults and a majority of adolescents report sleeping less than the recommended duration. Currently, epidemiological research is beginning to link insufficient and in some studies, excessive sleep with obesity. These sleep patterns may predispose someone to Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome.

Metabolic health and Disease Risk

Individuals with good metabolic health have a reduced risk of developing;

  1. obesity,

  2. type 2 diabetes,

  3. cardiovascular disease and

  4. non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Conversely, individuals with poor metabolic health are at an increased risk of developing these chronic conditions.

Social and Commercial Influences on metabolic health

It is important to note the social and commercial contributors to ill-metabolic health. Metabolic dysfunction and it’s health consequences are not solely related to lifestyle choices. Marketing is powerfully used to maximize profits and take advantage of the stressful environments most people live in.

A few examples of the social and commercial influences on metabolic health are listed below, but this is by no means exhaustive and these relationships are complex and multiple:

  1. widespread availability and marketing of junk foods, designed to be maximally pleasurable for maximal profit.

  2. social stressors, such as working long hours, shift work, lack of family support all of which contribute to ill metabolic health.

  3. chronic stressors such as lack of finances, housing security, racial or sexual discrimination.

  4. urban design with lack of greenspace or unsafe urban environments reduces availability for exercise space.

  5. Exposure to multiple adverse childhood events – abuse, neglect, parental drug use or separation or other significant stressors during childhood increase risk of metabolic health problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if you have poor metabolic health?

As stated above, no one factor determines your metabolic health. By seeing your doctor and measuring your blood sugars, cholesterol and blood triglycerides, calculating your BMI and waist to hip ratio can work out your current metabolic status. The good news is that it is modifiable.

How can I boost up my metabolism?

  1. Eat a whole food plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean Diet.

  2. Exercise at least 30 mins/day 5 x per week (or 150 mins per week).

  3. Walk 2 mins every hour during your work week, or while doing sedentary activities such as surfing the internet or watching TV.

  4. Intermittent fasting – try 12:12 initially, limiting eating to a 12 hour window. Work towards 16:8 intermittent fasting which is limiting eating to an 8 hour window.

What are the most common metabolic disorders that are reversible with lifestyle changes?

  1. Metabolic Syndrome

  2. Type 2 Diabetes

  3. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

  4. Cardiovascular disease.

Dr Tane Brunt Kale Berri Health

Written by Dr Tane Brunt. Last edited 7/2/2022.


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