New research shows that an “alarmingly low” number of American adults are achieving optimal metabolic health, leaving the majority of people at increased risk for serious diseases.
In a study published last month in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill evaluated data from 8,721 adults from the 2009 to 2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They found that just 1 in 8 adults in the United States have optimal metabolic health.
They defined metabolic health as having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without using medications. These factors directly relate to a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Participants who were obese fared the worst, with just 0.5 percent achieving optimal metabolic health. However, less than half of those who were underweight and less than a third of participants with normal weights had optimal metabolic health.
“We need to look at metabolism beyond just body weight,” said Dr. Rekha Kumar, endocrinologist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “There has been a push to address obesity through public health measures, but this study shows us that even people who are a normal weight seem to be developing diseases that we typically correlate with obesity.”
The report also showed that certain demographics and lifestyle factors affect metabolic health.
Those with the highest rates of metabolic health included women, people under the age of 40, nonsmokers, those who are physically active, and those who had at least some college education.
Non-Hispanic black participants and people 60 years old and older were least likely to be metabolically healthy.
Having poor metabolic health means you have a higher chance of developing diabetes, heart disease, or stroke.
Understanding your risks starts by getting your annual physical.
“Ask your doctor about whether or not it would be appropriate to be screened for chronic disease risk,” Ku said. “They can easily order a routine lab screening that looks at those factors, like your cholesterol and blood sugar.”
Making diet and lifestyle changes can help improve your metabolic health. Ku, Nazareth, and Kumar emphasize the importance of quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet rich in vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising regularly throughout the week.
Those habits not only work to improve your metabolic health, but also offer a range of other benefits for the body and mind.
“Sleep hygiene should also be incorporated into improving metabolic health. That has taken a hit on our modern society with technology and what often feels like a 24-hour workday for people,” Kumar said.
Shifting public health measures to target everyone (not just those with obesity) is also essential in helping improve the rate of optimal metabolic health throughout the country, Kumar adds.
“All those campaigns focused on increasing someone’s physical activity, reducing sugar intake and reducing saturated fats in the diet shouldn’t just be targeted at people with a weight problem, but to all people. We need to understand that even if you don’t have a weight problem, you might still have a metabolism problem,” she said.