A metabolic disorder is when something goes wrong with your metabolism, making it difficult for your cells to access the fuel you eat or the energy stored within your body.
When disorders of the metabolism get a foothold, they can progress to conditions such as insulin resistance, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and type 2 diabetes. But this progression can be short-circuited. This blog post gives you the parameters to understand your current metabolic health and practical ways to improve it.
Metabolic Health At-A-Glance
- Your metabolism is a collection of chemical reactions that change food into energy and eliminate metabolic wastes.
- The 5 criteria of metabolic syndrome include a large waist circumference, high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol.
- Excess fructose consumption burdens the liver, leading to inflammation, insulin resistance, and easier weight gain. Avoid sweetened drinks, packaged snacks, and high-fructose fruits (e.g., dried figs, mangoes, grapes, and watermelon).
- Eat a lower-carb/better-carb diet to stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels. Focus on foods with the best fiber-to-carb ratios (e.g., non-starchy vegetables, avocados, nuts, and seeds.)
- Practice intermittent fasting. Eating within a shortened eating window improves insulin sensitivity. Work up to regular 14-hour fasts and try early time-restricted eating.
- Regular exercise makes it easier for your cells to take in glucose. All forms of exercise help, from aerobic-style exercises like walking to lifting weights.
Move From Metabolic Syndrome to Metabolic Health – 4 Things That Make a Difference [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- How your metabolism should work.
- The five criteria for metabolic syndrome.
- Four changes to your diet and lifestyle that can lead you to metabolic health.
Your metabolism is the collection of chemical reactions that take place every second of the day. The main functions of your metabolism are to change the foods you eat into energy and useful resources and eliminate metabolic wastes.
There are many types of metabolic disorders, with some being out of our control due to genetic factors or a lack of access to proper nutrition. However, metabolic disorders can also develop over time due to diet and lifestyle habits.
A lack of metabolic health is evaluated based on 5 criteria, including a large waist circumference, high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol.
When three or more of these factors are present, the diagnosis is metabolic syndrome.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, “Most people who have metabolic syndrome have insulin resistance.”
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas to move glucose, or sugar, out of the blood and into cells for use as energy. Factors that are common to those with metabolic syndrome, such as obesity and a diet high in refined carbohydrates, make it more difficult for cells in the body to respond to insulin. In other words, the cells resist insulin’s efforts, creating the condition called insulin resistance.
Therefore, to move from metabolic syndrome to metabolic health, you want to help insulin do its job. You can do that by making four changes to your diet and lifestyle. These changes don’t have to be dramatic, but they are necessary to start moving back toward metabolic health.
Solution #1: Avoid Excess Fructose
Since the primary job of your metabolism is to convert the foods you eat into energy, it makes sense that your food choices are important to your metabolic health. One thing that tends to be confusing and run underneath are radar is fructose.
Fructose is confusing because there is added fructose and natural fructose. Fructose, or high-fructose corn syrup, is often added to packaged foods and drinks because it is cheap and sweet.
Unlike a piece of fruit that has natural fructose locked inside a fibrous matrix, processed foods with added fructose have nothing to slow absorption. Therefore, when you eat junk food snacks or drink sweetened soda or juice, your liver is faced with a flood of fructose.
It takes a lot of energy to deal with that flood. Do this multiple times a day by drinking juice and soda and eating packaged snacks, and it puts a burden on your liver that leads to inflammation, insulin resistance, and easier weight gain, particularly in the abdomen.
That fat that pushes the belly out and feels harder than the soft fat pinched under the skin is called visceral fat. This special type of fat forms deep in the belly and is metabolically harmful, increasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease. (1)
Natural fructose is better for you than added fructose. But fruits vary in their fructose concentration. When it comes to metabolic health, how much fructose is dumped into your system at one time is a factor.
Dr. Peter Attia has an interesting podcast on this topic. On his website, you’ll also find a chart showing the fructose content of different fruits.
The takeaway is that low-fructose fruits, like strawberries, blackberries, cantaloupe, lemons, and limes, put a low burden on the liver, making them better choices as you work toward better metabolic health than high-fructose fruits, like dried figs, mangoes, grapes, and surprisingly watermelon and apples.
Solution #2: Eat Lower-Carb/Better-Carb
Because the onset of metabolic disorders is closely related to how your cells respond to insulin, and insulin is secreted in response to rising blood sugar, the best approach to halt the progression is to eat in a way that stabilizes blood sugar. Many studies show that following a low carb diet has this effect, making the diet a viable approach (2) (3).
This makes sense when you consider that carbohydrates are the macronutrients that cause the most significant spike in blood sugar and insulin. If you are new to low carb dieting, you can gradually decrease your carb intake by tracking how many grams of carbs you eat in a day, aiming for no more than 125 grams.
For some of you, this can be accomplished by cutting out quick-digesting carbs, like soda, sweetened tea and juice, and refined desserts and snacks. What you hear me refer to as the 3C’s: cookies, cakes, and candies.
Depending on your body, you may find that you need to reduce your overall carbohydrate intake further to achieve blood sugar stability. However, you’ll likely find that you can keep some slow-digesting carbs in your diet.
You’ll be happiest with your results when you focus on foods with the best fiber-to-carb ratios, such as leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
The fiber and nutrients in these foods slow the rate at which they break down and get absorbed. So you don’t need to eliminate all carbs from your diet; just make different choices.
While this idea of eating a lower-carb/better-carb diet may make sense to you, a challenge that I often see when a person cuts out high-carb convenience foods is that they don’t replace the carbs with fat.
Carbs and fats are the two dietary macronutrients that your body likes to run on. If you cut back on both, you will feel tired and hungry. This is a bit off-topic for this article, but I wanted to mention one recent study to counter some of the fears surrounding eating foods containing fat.
I realize that not everyone tolerates dairy, but the findings of this study published in July of this year “show that up to two servings a day of dairy, mainly whole-fat, can be included in a healthy diet. This is in keeping with modern nutrition science showing that dairy, particularly whole-fat, may protect against high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome” (4).
Solution #3: Fasting
Intermittent fasting is a valuable and easy-to-implement tool in your strategy to reduce insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. During your fasting hours, when no food comes in, there is no rise in blood sugar or insulin, making your body more insulin sensitive over time.
Intermittent fasting will meet you where you are at. If you’ve never fasted before, I encourage you to start with an overnight fast of 12 hours. For instance, stop eating by 7 pm. Resume eating at 7 am. When that feels comfortable, add a couple of hours of fasting.
To give you some perspective, patients with metabolic syndrome that was being treated with medication were asked in a research study to condense their daily eating window from what was 14+ hours down to 10 hours.
They did this for three months, and they got significant improvements in their metabolic syndrome criteria. They lost weight, lost belly fat, decreased their blood pressure and fasting blood glucose, and improved their blood cholesterol profiles.
Nothing changed with their medication. The only change was that they reduced their eating window to 10 hours (5).
You don’t have to skip breakfast to perform intermittent fasting. In fact, once you are comfortable with 14:10 fasting, consider moving your eating window to earlier in the day. For instance, start eating by 7 am and finish eating for the day by 5 pm.
Solution #4: Exercise
Regular exercise makes it easier for your cells to take in glucose, reversing the resistance they once had. When your cells are more insulin sensitive, they have an easier time pulling sugar out of your blood, so there is less circulating.
The exercise does not have to be exhausting to be helpful. Even short, brisk walks after dinner will move you in a positive direction. It has been found that all forms of exercise help, so whether you enjoy aerobic-style exercises like walking or riding a bike or prefer lifting weights at the gym, you will benefit (7) (8).
Let’s put this all together so you have a practical roadmap to get started today. To move from metabolic syndrome to metabolic health:
1. Stop the excess fructose intake by ditching sugary sodas, sweetened drinks, and packaged snacks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Diet soda is not a healthy drink, but if you need to switch to it for a few weeks to help get sugary drinks out of your diet, it is a step in the right direction. Then, when you feel more in control, wean yourself off the diet drinks. Something to try is plain carbonated water, such as seltzer or mineral water.
2. Eat a lower-carb/better-carb diet to stabilize your blood sugar, making insulin’s job easier.
3. Further improve insulin sensitivity by eating within a shortened eating window. When you feel comfortable restricting your food intake to 10 hours a day, try shifting to an early time-restricted eating pattern where you finish eating by 5 pm.
4. Make a concerted effort to move more. Any form of exercise helps your cells take in glucose, so the best exercise for you is the one you’re willing to do.
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!
(1) Stanhope, Kimber L., et al. “Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans.” The Journal of clinical investigation 119.5 (2009): 1322-1334.
(2) Franziska Spritzler RD, C. D. E. “A low-carbohydrate, whole-foods approach to managing diabetes and prediabetes.” Diabetes Spectrum 25.4 (2012): 238.
(3) Feinman, Richard D., et al. “Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: critical review and evidence base.” Nutrition 31.1 (2015): 1-13.
(4) European Society of Cardiology. “Global diet study challenges advice to limit high-fat dairy foods.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 July 2023. <http://<www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/07/230706231355.htm>
(5) Wilkinson, Michael J., et al. “Ten-hour time-restricted eating reduces weight, blood pressure, and atherogenic lipids in patients with metabolic syndrome.” Cell metabolism 31.1 (2020): 92-104.
(6) Sutton, Elizabeth F., et al. “Early time-restricted feeding improves insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and oxidative stress even without weight loss in men with prediabetes.” Cell metabolism 27.6 (2018): 1212-1221.
(7) Koopman, René, et al. “A single session of resistance exercise enhances insulin sensitivity for at least 24 h in healthy men.” European journal of applied physiology 94.1 (2005): 180-187.
(8) Borghouts, L. B., and H. A. Keizer. “Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review.” International journal of sports medicine 21.01 (2000): 1-12.