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 over 8,700 adults from the 2009 to 2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They found that just 1 in 8 American adults (12%) have optimal metabolic health1. Metabolic health was defined as having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), blood pressure, and a healthy waist circumference without having to use medications to normalize the values.
Having poor metabolic health equates to higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. That’s not good, and currently, according to the CDC, one out of three Americans has pre-diabetes or diabetes and 60% of adults have some degree of heart disease. The study determined that only 1% of obese adults were metabolically healthy. Over 200 million Americans are overweight or obese, 43% of our citizens are clinically obese, and, unfortunately it’s projected to be 50% obesity in just a few more years. We have to do something as a nation to get healthy!
So how do you lose weight and achieve metabolic health? We’ve all heard the weight loss adage, “calories in, calories out” and while it sounds like a simple formula for weight loss, it’s actually harmful. It’s not just a radical oversimplification of nutrition, it creates blame, ignores the impact of the microbiome, stress, sleep and a host of other lifestyle factors that directly affect your metabolism. Calories, in, calories out? Nope, the reality is very different, and it is determined by a host of other factors above and beyond the calories that you put in your mouth.
Factors (beyond calories) that effect your metabolism
- Inflammation – Inflammation is one of the biggest factors in chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and more. Inflammation is a part of your immune response, but chronic inflammation can cause a host of problems. Inflammation can increase your stress hormones and decrease your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. The inflammatory stress response is controlled by the systemic nervous system (fight or flight) and when that is active, you can’t be parasympathetic (rest and digest). The sympathetic response directs energy away from your digestive tract, decreases stomach acid and how well you break down and therefore absorb nutrients from your food. It can also effect how fast or slow you move food through the body (through its effect on the vagus nerve) altering motility.
- Microbiome and SCFA – Your gut microbiome helps you by creating certain nutrients, regulating your immune system, creating and activating hormones, as well as through reducing inflammation through the creation of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Not only to SCFAs reduce inflammation but they help heal and protect the lining of the digestive system. The most well known and studied SCFA is butyrate, you can increase butyrate by feeding your microbiome foods only it can digest, resistant starches (see below). Studies have shown that one difference between those who are naturally thin versus fat is that they have different strains of gut bacteria between them, not only different strains, but the thinner individuals have a better, more diverse balance of microbes. Microbe diversity is created through probiotics (foods containing bacteria), prebiotics (foods that feed the healthy bacteria like vegetables, tubers, and fruit) and resistant starches. Diversity in diet helps here too.
- Resistant Starches (RS)– Fiber that humans have a hard time breaking down, but our microbiome can. RS directly feed the good guys (as opposed to sugar which directly feeds the pathogenic bacteria, creates inflammation and diseases of inflammation). RS can be pectin from apples or pears, the starch from cooked then cooled potatoes, green bananas, acacia fiber and more.
- Liver Detoxification – Liver stagnation (nutrient deficiency, fatty liver, too much to process at once) can create inflammation, fat storage, constipation, weight gain, and more. You liver is involved in numerous functions besides just detoxification, among them is hormone metabolism and excretion. Inflammation in the liver can effect thyroid function which in turn effects metabolism. Help your liver by decreasing your exposure alcohol, high fructose corn syrups and other sugars in excess, and by eating a clean diet. Toxins in your food and drinks can effect your microbiome and your liver. For example, pesticides and GMOs can effect your microbiome diversity, plastics and heavy metals (arsenic in rice, lead in cheaper cookware) can be an additional load for your liver to process both of which can increase your overall inflammation and decrease the effectivity of those processes directly. Every single thing you smell, eat, drink and put on your skin has to be processed by your liver, every single one!
- Digestive Power – Your acid, enzymes and motility rate all affect your metabolism. Too fast of a motility and you get diarrhea, too slow and you are constipated. Too little stomach acid and you can’t break down your food and absorb certain nutrients like vitamin B12 and proteins. Missing some enzymes and you can’t break down your food; anyone with a lactase deficiency knows this all too well. Other factors are gallbladder and bile storage, liver detoxification, food intolerances, and other digestive inflammatory issues like Crohn’s or colitis.
- Processed foods – Processed food create a metabolic roadblock that slows down your metabolism. In a study from Cell Metabolism, Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain2, research scientists compared a diet of processed foods (cheerios, packaged muffins and chips, Chef Boyardee, white bread and diet drinks) with an unprocessed diet (Greek yogurt and walnuts, salads with chicken breast, whole grain breads and pastas, fruit and nuts as snacks) which had similar calories and meal composition. Participants could freely eat and those on the processed diet ate on average 500 kcal more per day and gained weight. Metabolism isn’t just calories in, calories out, again it’s the type and quality of food that matters for your metabolism, microbiome, liver, toxic load etc.
- Excess sugar – Sugar is inherently inflammatory and it feeds the pathogenic bacteria, viruses and yeasts in our microbiome creating even more inflammation. Patterns are biochemical as well as behavioral – we crave what we are used to, so if you eat a lot of simple refined grains and processed food, your body will create chemicals in response that create more cravings for those foods. It’s a vicious cycle. Even Splenda or stevia which have no calories and don’t raise your insulin levels increase your desire for sweet tastes and solidify the sugar chemical craving cycle. Sugar is inflammatory, increasing visible signs of aging, creates hormonal changes, creates insulin resistance, increases risks for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and Alzheimer’s. You have to kick the sugar addictions.
- Metabolic dysfunction – excess body fat, insulin resistance, decreased metabolism… all symptoms of your body not burning fuel as efficiently as needed for optimal health and all a biochemical imbalance between what you can absorb and metabolize versus what you are eating. Excess body fat, excess dietary sugar, high blood levels of insulin all of these things create inflammation in the body, including inflammation in the digestive system (further complicating your body’s ability to utilize nutrients it needs) and inflammation in the brain creating brain fog, depression, lack of concentration, buildup of toxic waste etc. BTW: Extra virgin olive oil (high quality!) and spirulina are both being studied for their neurogenerative effects… reducing neuroinflammation and helping to repair the brain.
- Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016 https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/met.2018.0105
- Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake, Hall et al. Cell Metabolism, May 2019
Erin Williams, MSN CN LMP, is the founder of EZBalance.com, a health and wellness company established in 2001. Erin has a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Purdue, a master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University, and is currently studying to become a Functional Medicine Practitioner. Erin enjoys sharing her love of natural health and wellness with people through lectures, blogs, and consultations.