What is metabolic health and why is it important?

Charlie Dean
Clinical Innovation Specialist
19 December 2023
Next review due December 2026

Your metabolic health relates to how your body processes things like fats and sugar. It’s based on several different factors, which together affect your risk of disease. Here I’ll explain why metabolic health is important, and what you can do to improve it.

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What is metabolic health?

How your body responds to a hormone called insulin is thought to be a key factor in metabolic health. Insulin is produced in the pancreas and helps to move sugar from the blood into cells in your body. When this process starts to not work as well, we build up something called insulin resistance. This causes blood sugar levels to rise.

Insulin resistance seems to be linked to other changes in your body. These include:

  • larger waist size
  • increased blood pressure
  • unhealthy fat (triglycerides and cholesterol) levels
  • raised glucose (blood sugar) level

If your metabolic health is poor, it means you may also have unhealthy levels of the factors listed above. If you have a combination of three or more of these risk factors, you may have metabolic syndrome.

Having metabolic syndrome increases your risk of diabetes , cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Having good metabolic health means your levels of these factors are within a healthy range. People who have a good metabolic health have lower risk of diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Why is metabolic health important?

Your weight can give you an idea of your health risks. But metabolic health is also important because it tells us more about what’s actually going on in your body. It shows how your body is processing fats and sugar in your diet, and how it’s responding to insulin.

Weight and metabolic health are related. But being a healthy weight doesn’t always guarantee good metabolic health. Studies have shown that it’s possible to be a healthy weight, but to have poor metabolic health. You can also be classed as overweight or obese but metabolically healthy.

Just as your weight can change over time, so can your metabolic health. If you are found to have good metabolic health, it’s possible for it to get worse. The good thing about this is that it can work the other way too. If you know your metabolic health is poor, you can make changes to improve it. This may then reduce your risk of disease.

What are the symptoms of poor metabolic health?

Many of the markers of poor metabolic health, like high blood pressure or raised glucose, can only be picked up on tests. They won’t usually have any noticeable signs or symptoms. You may only notice them if they start to cause problems like diabetes or heart and circulation problems.

Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • needing to pee more often
  • being very thirsty
  • losing weight without trying

Symptoms of heart and circulation problems include:

  • pain in your chest (angina)
  • pain in your legs when you’re walking

How do you measure your metabolic health?

Your doctor or other health professional can do some tests and take some measurements to assess your metabolic health. These may include your blood glucose level and fat levels, your blood pressure and your waist circumference.

They might take these measurements as part of a routine check-up, or while checking for certain health conditions. They can look at all these factors together to assess your overall metabolic health.

What are the causes of poor metabolic health?

There are many things that can affect your metabolic health. Poor metabolic health is usually down to combination of factors. These include:

  • older age
  • being overweight or obese 
  • being male
  • having a family history of metabolic syndrome
  • having a diet high in saturated fats and carbohydrates
  • not being very active
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol to excess

How do I improve my metabolic health?

There are certain things you can’t change, like your genes and your age. But there are many things that you can. Making changes to your lifestyle can really make a difference in improving your metabolic health. Here are some of the best things you can do.

  • Lose any excess weight. This has beneficial effects on all elements of metabolic health.
  • Aim for a healthy diet. Cut down on saturated fats, sugar, and salt in your diet. Include more fruit and vegetables, unsaturated fats and wholegrain carbohydrates. You should also make sure you get enough protein.
  • Get regular exercise. Aim to get some aerobic exercise – activities that make you breathe harder and faster – every day. It’s important to do some activities that strengthen your muscles at least a couple of times a week too.
  • If you smoke, stop.

Making lifestyle changes is the best way to tackle all areas of your metabolic health. But in some cases, you may need medicines to control individual factors, such as cholesterol or blood pressure. It’s best to take your doctor’s advice on this. Getting the right treatment when you need it is important to reduce your risk of long-term health problems.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Charlie Dean
Charlie Dean
Clinical Innovation Specialist



Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor.

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    • Metabolic syndrome. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed 15 October 2023
    • Stefan N, Schulze MB. Metabolic health and cardiometabolic risk clusters: implications for prediction, prevention, and treatment. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 2023;11(6): 426-440. doi: 10.1016/S2213-8587(23)00086-4
    • Metabolic syndrome. Patient., last edited 12 July 2022
    • Zembic A, Eckel N, Stefan N, et al. An empirically derived definition of metabolically healthy obesity based on risk of cardiovascular and total mortality. JAMA Netw Open 2021;4(5): e218505. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.8505 2023

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