You’ve probably heard the terms “slow metabolism” and “fast metabolism” thrown around in online health and weight loss spaces. But what exactly do those terms mean?
Well, slow and fast isn’t quite the best way to describe metabolic health. However, your metabolic health is still really, really important.
In this article, we’ll define metabolic health and discuss the best foods and diets for metabolic wellness, and the foods you should avoid. Let’s go!
What Is Metabolic Health?
Metabolic health, in general terms, is all about how your body transforms the food you eat into energy.
When you eat, your blood sugar rises, and the hormone insulin is released by the pancreas to move this sugar into your cells. Some of this sugar is consumed immediately as energy. When there is excess sugar, though, it is stored as body fat.[*]
If you’re not metabolically healthy, your body may be insulin resistant — so your blood sugar levels stay higher, and your body releases more insulin to compensate. The end result is higher blood sugar levels and higher insulin levels.[*]
Cardiometabolic health refers to your metabolic health and your heart health but is often used interchangeably with the term metabolic health.
Why Is It Important?
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that indicate poor metabolic health. If you meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome, you may be at an increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, and more.
To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you must meet 3 of these 5 criteria[*]:
- A waist of 35+ inches for women or 40+ inches for men
- A triglyceride level of at least 150 mg/dL
- A low HDL cholesterol level of less than 50 mg/dL for women or less than 40 mg/dL for men
- Blood pressure at or above 130/85
- Fasting blood sugar of 100 mg/dL or higher
Note: these are the guidelines for metabolic syndrome in the U.S., but the criteria in your country may differ slightly.
Any of the criteria on this list can serve as a sign that your metabolic health may not be optimal. However, if you meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome, it’s a good idea to start trying to reverse these health issues before they develop into something more severe.
What Foods Support Metabolic Health?
The best foods for metabolic health are whole and minimally processed. Nearly any food that fits these criteria can be good for metabolic health — including meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, herbs and spices, and even some legumes and grains if you’re not sensitive to them.
This is why there are so many different diets that promote health for many different people across the world. From the almost exclusively carnivore diet of the Maasai people in Kenya and Tanzania to the almost exclusively vegetarian diet of Okinawans, the common factor is that these diets are composed of whole, minimally processed foods.[*][*]
However, some specific foods are particularly noteworthy. Here are our top 10 picks for the best foods for metabolic health.
Top 10 Foods for Metabolic Health
Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat, fiber, and potassium — making them a triple-threat when it comes to metabolic health. The monounsaturated fat (the same type found in olive oil) may promote heart health, the fiber offers a number of weight and heart health benefits, and the potassium can help to regulate blood pressure.[*][*][*]
2. Olive Oil
Olive oil is rich in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that may help improve your heart health. Olive oil is thought to be one of the major beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet.[*]
Berries like strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are low in sugar and rich in antioxidants, which may help combat cellular damage that can contribute to metabolic disease. They also contain some fiber.[*]
5. Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens are low in calories and carbs and provide some fiber. They’re also rich in micronutrients and antioxidants, which help optimize cellular functioning to keep your body metabolically healthy.[*]
Egg yolks contain choline, an essential nutrient many people don’t get enough of. Choline is necessary for your body to complete several metabolic processes and plays a key role in forming cell membranes and neurotransmitters.[*][*] Eggs also contain high-quality protein and disease-fighting nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin.
7. Almonds and Other Tree Nuts
Almonds and other tree nuts, like walnuts and pecans, are rich in fiber, fat, and protein — making them a balanced choice for snacking. Almonds in particular, have also been linked to improvements in metabolic health.[*]
8. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut contain live bacteria called probiotics. After you eat fermented foods, these probiotics can take up residence in your gut and help promote a healthy gut microbiome — which may, in turn, promote metabolic health.[*]
9. Green Tea or Coffee
In addition to energizing caffeine, green tea and coffee contain antioxidants and phytochemicals (plant compounds) that may help promote cellular health. For example, coffee contains chlorogenic acid, and green tea contains epigallocatechin-gallate (EGCG).[*]
10. Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed cows consume a more natural diet than their conventional counterparts, that are grain-fed, and generally have leaner meat that also contains a higher level of omega-3 fats.[*]
Foods to Avoid for Metabolic Health
On the other hand, there are some foods you may want to avoid or limit as much as possible for optimal metabolic health. These include:
- Processed snacks: Ultraprocessed foods — think chips, crackers, cookies, and boxed meals — have been linked to weight gain and metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease,[*] and maybe even Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Sugary drinks: Sugary sodas are thought to be major contributors to increasing rates of obesity and chronic disease.[*]
- Sweets: Likewise, sweets like candy, snack cakes, and ice cream may cause the same issues due to their high sugar content.[*]
- Refined seed oils: Refined seed oils like soybean oil, corn oil, and canola oil are highly processed and have been linked to heart disease and weight gain.[*][*]
- Refined grains: Refined grains like white pasta and white bread may not taste sweet, but they break down in the body and behave nearly identically to table sugar.[*]
Best Diets for Metabolic Health
So, how can you put all of this together to eat in a way that’s metabolically healthy? Here are four diets that have been studied for their potential metabolic health benefits.
Keto is low in carbs and high in fat, with a typical macro breakdown of 5% carbs, 20-25% protein, and 70-75% fat.
The goal of Keto is to get you into a metabolic state called ketosis, where you’re burning fat for fuel rather than carbs. In ketosis, many people find it much easier to lose weight because they are much less hungry. Additionally, it reduces insulin levels, making it easier to burn stored body fat and helping to improve your blood sugar levels. People on Keto have also reported improvements in blood pressure and triglycerides, so it may help improve metabolic health in a number of ways.[*][*]
Low-carb diets are less restrictive than Keto, allowing you to eat up to 26% of your calories from carbs each day. However, with higher carb levels, you won’t enter ketosis and may not achieve all the potential benefits it offers.[*]
Regardless, low-carb diets offer a number of promising benefits — including weight loss, improved insulin resistance, lower triglycerides, and reduced blood pressure.[*]
Paleo is a dietary pattern based on what our Paleolithic ancestors likely ate. It’s high in protein, moderate in fat, and relatively low in carbs. On Paleo, you avoid added sugars and processed foods, as well as grains, legumes, soy, and dairy.
The Mediterranean diet has been heavily researched and shown to be very beneficial for metabolic health. It’s based on the traditional diet eaten in Mediterranean countries and is rich in olive oil, lean meats, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.[*]
The Mediterranean diet is often higher in carbs than Paleo, Low Carb, or Keto, so it’s a good choice if you have trouble avoiding sugary fruits or whole grains. It is also frequently combined with other diets, such as a “modified ketogenic Mediterranean diet.”
Researchers have found that the Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.[*]
If you realize you may not be metabolically healthy, it could be time to make some changes to optimize your health moving forward. Whether you’re curious about Paleo, Keto, Low Carb, or Mediterranean, Carb Manager has the resources you need — like meal planning tools, helpful articles and guides, recipes, and a huge catalog of nutrition information.
As always, be sure to work with your health care practitioner on any dietary and lifestyle changes if you have been diagnosed with or are concerned about a serious health condition.