We asked doctors what it really means to have a healthy metabolism—and faster doesn’t necessarily equal better.
In the nutrition world, the concept of having a “healthy” metabolism is often placed on a pedestal. And no wonder: Metabolic health is crucial for overall health, and ultimately, longevity. In contrast, metabolic issues can increase the risk of chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But what does having a “healthy” metabolism involve, exactly—and is it the same for everyone? To find out, we asked medical experts for the lowdown on what it means to have a “healthy” metabolism, plus how to support metabolic health.
What Is Metabolism?
According to Casey Kelley, MD, ABoIM, board-certified integrative medicine specialist, and founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health, your metabolism is a highly complex set of bodily processes that take place in every cell. These processes turn the food you eat into substances and nutrients (think amino acids, carbohydrates, and lipids) that give your body energy to complete its daily functions. This includes “building muscles and brain cells, repairing organs, providing materials for immune systems to fight infections, and everything in between,” Dr. Kelley says.
What Does It Mean to Have a Healthy Metabolism?
Metabolism, like many aspects of health, looks different for each person. Your metabolic rate (or how fast metabolism takes place in your body) is influenced by many factors, including genetics, age, gender, hormone function, level of physical activity, and other medical conditions, Dr. Kelley explains. With that in mind, the makeup of a “healthy” metabolism will be unique for each individual—so most generally, having a healthy metabolism means the body can properly support its essential functions on a cellular level.
What Is a Fast Metabolism—and Is It Always Healthiest?
However, in the wellness space, a “healthy” metabolism is often used synonymously with a “fast” or “good” metabolism (or as a euphemism for being thin or losing weight)—but that might not always be the case. Here’s why: When people talk about a “fast” or “good” metabolism, they’re usually referring to the ability to overeat without gaining weight. Put another way, it involves the ability to use calories (i.e., energy) at a faster rate, says registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN. In general, a faster metabolism is due to a higher percentage of muscle mass, but it’s also influenced by the factors listed above. And while people commonly covet having a fast metabolism, it doesn’t necessarily equate to overall health, body size, or weight, Pasquariello says.
“For many people, gaining weight is an important and worthwhile goal, and a fast metabolism [makes this] more difficult,” she says. In some cases, it can also negatively affect your hunger levels—making it hard to feel satisfied after eating—and lead to irregular menstruation. In other words, a super-fast metabolism won’t be the end goal for everyone, nor should it be, says Pasquariello.
What Is a Slow Metabolism—and Is It Always Unhealthy?
On the flipside, a “slow” metabolism colloquially referred to an “unhealthy” or a “bad” metabolism, or the tendency to gain excess weight without overeating. However, a slower metabolism doesn’t automatically indicate poor health or lifestyle choices, Pasquariello notes. “Since metabolism has a genetic component, many healthy people have slower metabolisms, and vice versa,” she explains. “Health is always a holistic picture, and it can’t be defined by a single characteristic,” she adds.
Signs of a Healthy Metabolism
One more time for the people in the back: A “healthy” metabolism will look different for each person! Still, there are some general indicators that your body’s metabolism is properly converting food into nutrients and energy it needs to optimally function.
1. You recover quickly after being sick.
It’s common to get the occasional cold, especially during the winter months or after traveling. But if your symptoms tend to be on the milder side (and you typically recover quickly), you can thank your immune system and metabolism, which are closely connected. “A strong immune response [uses] a good amount of energy, so it requires a functioning metabolism,” Dr. Kelley notes.
2. Your stress is under control.
“While it’s possible to have healthy stress levels and a dysfunctional metabolism, regulated stress levels can be a sign of healthy metabolism,” Dr. Kelley says. When you’re stressed, your body responds by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. This pumps more blood (and therefore, oxygen) to your brain, heart, and lungs, making you more alert. When you have a healthy metabolism, there’s enough energy to support these functions, as well as your ability to adapt to stressors.
3. Your digestion is in check.
According to Pasquariello, regular digestion is a sign that your metabolism is in working order. This involves little to no gas or bloating, as well as consistent and comfortable bowel movements. That’s because gut health relies on top-notch microbial metabolism, or the ability of your gut bacteria to turn food into nutrients. The metabolic activity of this beneficial bacteria also makes it harder for the bad bacteria to take over, keeping your gut in good shape.
4. You have enough energy to power through the day.
Another sign your metabolism is on point is sustained energy levels, says Pasquariello. After all, the main function of metabolism is to provide energy for your cells—and ultimately, your body. A healthy metabolism is also more flexible, meaning it can adjust and meet your energy needs during different activities, including exercise.
How to Support a Healthy Metabolism
If you’re experiencing symptoms like frequent colds, poor digestion, or persistent fatigue, visit your doctor. They can help determine if your symptoms are due to an underlying condition, including those that affect metabolism. Keep in mind there are many types of metabolic disorders, as metabolism regulates so many bodily functions. Your doctor is the best person to provide a medical diagnosis (along with the appropriate medications or therapies, if any) to get your metabolism back on track.
Additionally, promoting a healthy metabolism can be done via certain lifestyle habits:
Get good quality sleep.
According to Dr. Kelley, getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours for the average adult) every night is essential for healthy metabolism. In contrast, lack of sleep can trigger hormonal changes, inflammation, and oxidative stress, all of which can mess with metabolism.
Sure, metabolism can affect your stress response—but it works in the opposite direction, too. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” This sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, allowing you to handle stressful situations. However, “when you’re regularly under stress, high amounts of cortisol can become harmful [to your metabolism],” says Dr. Kelley. Find helpful ways to reduce stress and promote relaxation through habits like staying active, meditating, journaling, or taking small breaks.(Reminder that what works for you might look different from what works for others!)
Stay physically active.
Leading a generally active lifestyle is one of the best things you can do for your metabolism. But this doesn’t mean you need to adopt a structured running routine to reap the benefits of physical activity (unless that’s your jam, of course). According to Pasquariello, activities like walking, taking the stairs, and cleaning can all benefit your metabolism. No matter how you choose to move, aim for 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, which is the weekly exercise recommendation for the average adult.
Do strength training.
Strength training increases muscle mass, which can improve your metabolism, Pasquariello says. The recommendation is two days of strength training per week, which can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or your own body weight.
Drink plenty of water.
Hydration is key for a range of bodily functions, including metabolism. According to Dr. Kelley, cells need water to signal metabolic responses to hormones and other critical substances in the body.
Focus on protein.
Compared to carbs and fat, protein takes more calories to break down, which can help strengthen metabolism in the long run, says Pasquariello. Eating more protein is also important for muscle growth and repair, which can improve metabolism, as noted.
Eat regular meals.
“Eat meals at regular, predictable times throughout the day, each day,” advises Pasquariello. Not only will this keep digestion regular, but it will benefit your metabolic function. On that note, don’t worry about the exact time of day (i.e., work with your own schedule!). “Your metabolism is always working, even at night—so don’t fret if you like to have a snack before bedtime,” says Pasquariello. If so, go for a high-protein food for your pre-bedtime snack to support healthy metabolism, she notes.
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