Only 1 in 8 Americans are considered metabolically healthy, which is defined as having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without using medications. Wait, what?! That’s right. That means for all you math whizzes out there that 7 out of 8 Americans have one or more underlying health conditions (and probably don’t know about it).
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published in the 2018 journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders that an “alarmingly low” number of American adults are truly living with no underlying metabolic conditions as evaluated using data from over 8,000 adults from the 2009 to 2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Even more, half of these ‘metabolically unhealthy’ participants were underweight, and a third of them were normal weight.
If there’s anything to take from this startling information is our immediate need to recognize the misguided approach many of us are taking in our own healthcare. Sure it’s easy to associate our weight fluctuations with overall health. We know when we see the scale creep up, or our pants fit a little too tight that our lifestyle choices are probably not sending us in the right direction. But we need to understand that even if you don’t have a weight problem, you might still have a metabolism problem, and arguably the most dangerous position to be in for our health is uneducated and uninformed.
KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
When was the last time you had a full lipid panel drawn from your doctor? Did they take the time to review the information with you? How are your numbers trending year over year? Are you taking a proactive role in managing your markers? Or are you just waiting until your doc tells you it’s time for a prescription? Your answer to this is the difference between practicing health care vs sick care.
Health is not simply the absence of disease; it’s the resistance to disease. Healthy people are strong, mentally and physically. They are fit, have a robust immune system, and ideal hormone balance to regulate energy production. As a result, healthy people feel good, sleep well and have natural energy levels. Yes, healthy people do get sick, but not as often as unhealthy people. And they don’t suffer from the myriad of chronic diseases that plague this country and account for the vast majority of its medical costs.
If you want to make the switch from a focus on ‘sick’ care to a focus on health care, you need to know your own metabolic markers, and be willing to take necessary actions.
Nothing creates metabolic mayhem quite like out of control blood sugars. Most people ride the blood sugar roller coaster all day, every day without the slightest idea as to why they feel hangry, moody, anxious, fatigued, and miserable. The high-highs and low-lows cause a flood of insulin and cortisol into the system, which wreck havoc on every organ system. There are two targets to consider. The first is fasting blood glucose. I define the normal range for fasting blood glucose as 75 – 90 mg/dL. Although 100 mg/dL is often considered the cutoff for normal, research has shown that fasting blood sugar levels in the mid-90s were predictive of future diabetes a decade later. The second is Hemoglobin A1c. A truly normal A1c is between 4.6% and 5.3% (despite the fact that your doctor’s cutoff is 5.7%). Reference your latest blood work to ensure that your blood sugar and insulin levels are within ideal ranges. Elevated blood sugar or insulin is a strong sign of underlying metabolic issues that need addressed ASAP with nutrition, lifestyle, and activity changes.
Want to see if your body is in a “fat storage mode” or a “fat burning mode?” Measure your triglycerides. Triglycerides are our body’s efficient means of storing energy for later use. The liver packages up excess energy at the end of the day and conveniently stores it in your fat tissue – your abdomen, love handles, hips, arms – wherever it can find a home! Elevated triglycerides can be an early sign we are headed toward sign more metabolic issues, like diabetes. Optimal triglyceride levels are less than 100 mg/dL, although your doctor may not flag them until they exceed 150 mg/dL. Minimizing fried foods, plant oils, and alcohol will reduce stress on the liver and naturally lower triglyceride levels.
High density lipoprotein (HDL) is a ‘garbage truck’ carrier for cholesterol. It’s job is to take excess cholesterol from the cells back to your liver where it’s broken down and removed from your body, which is why HDL is often referred to as your “healthy” cholesterol. Unfortunately, HDL levels are often overlooked by medical practitioners – much more emphasis is put on total cholesterol, and specifically LDL cholesterol. Why? Because we actually have pharmaceutical interventions to lower your cholesterol, but you have to put in the work to raise your good cholesterol. It’s an unfortunate truth. Ideal levels of HDL differ from men to women. Men should aim for HDL greater than 40 mg/dL, and women should aim for HDL greater than 50 mg/dL. However, HDL markers above 60 mg/dL are important with age. Increasing HDL is best achieved by smoking cessation, increasing saturated fat consumption (think eggs and coconut oil), and incorporating resistance training 2-3x/week.
Your blood pressure is the best indicator of your circulatory health and is recorded as two numbers:
- Systolic blood pressure (the first number) – indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats.
- Diastolic blood pressure (the second number) – indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.
Typically, more attention is given to systolic blood pressure (the first number) as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease due to the increasing stiffness of large arteries, long-term buildup of plaque and an increased incidence of cardiac and vascular disease. However, either an elevated systolic or an elevated diastolic blood pressure reading may be used to make a diagnosis of high blood pressure. Ideal blood pressure readings are 120/80 mmHg. Be warned that low blood pressure can also be an issue, especially if using a blood pressure lowering medication, causing dizziness, fainting, fatigue, and muscle weakness.
MAKING THE CHANGE
So you have one (or more) markers out of range – but you think you live a healthy lifestyle. It’s not always as easy as it sounds. Our bodies are continuously exposed to stresses never before experienced in human history. We have a food industry full of processed chemicals, workplaces that foster stress and sedentary settings, and environmental toxins that overwhelm our body’s detoxification process.
But if you’re ready to educate yourself, change your resources, and adapt your routine, there are new approaches that focus on healthy foods, physical activity and stress management. Here are the top proactive steps you can take to proactively prioritize your metabolic health, not wait around for sickness:
- Crush fiber by eating 4-6 fist-size servings of vegetables and whole fruits every day.
- Curb your sugar intake by reducing or eliminated sweetened beverages from your every day routine.
- Cut out fried foods. Soybean, peanut, canola, and other plant oils turn into inflammatory omega-6’s when heated to high temperatures.
- Clean up your protein sources by opting for grass-fed, grass-finished beef, uncured, nitrate free pork products, or wild-caught fish sources.
- Create an exercise routine and stick to it. Mix in both cardiovascular and strength training 3-5x/week.
- Cancel out stress with focused meditation 10-15 minutes every day.
Ultimately we are responsible for our own health. But let’s face it: Staying healthy takes work. It requires energy that many of us don’t have — because we are not healthy. But with some simple and consistent lifestyle changes, your return on investment comes in the form of reduced medical costs, energy & vitality in your relationships, and a more productive & fulfilling life! Take a moment to reflect on your mindset – are you focused on daily health care, or are you on stand-by for sickness?