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Medicine or Malarkey: Does being a “normal” weight mean you’re healthy?

First off, let’s acknowledge the obvious: The meaning of “normal” weight is not an exact science.

The healthy weight range for any individual depends on a lot of factors, including age, gender, and height, plus the composition of body fat versus muscle.

Measurements such as the Body Mass Index (BMI) are only references, and what’s most important is making healthy life choices such as exercising regularly, eating a variety of unprocessed foods and getting enough sleep.

That said, the results from a recent public health study were a bit alarming: Only one in eight Americans is metabolically healthy — even among people who are normal weight.

What is metabolic health?

The researchers behind the study defined metabolic health as having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference — all without using medications. These indicators are important because being metabolically healthy reduces your risk of developing serious conditions like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Typically, obese adults are considered more at-risk for these health conditions, but the data in this first-of-its-kind study revealed that only 12.2% of all American adults are metabolically healthy. Even among underweight study participants, less than half had optimal metabolic health, and less than a third of normal-weight participants had ideal metabolic measurements.

“We need to look at metabolism beyond just body weight,” endocrinologist Dr. Rekha Kumar told Healthline. “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.”

How does lifestyle affect metabolic health?

The question, then, is why so few of us are achieving metabolic health. Lifestyle is definitely part of the answer, as the study directly linked smoking and low levels of physical active with poor metabolic health.

Those who performed best on the five metabolic health indicators included women, people under 40, nonsmokers, and those who work out regularly.

How can you improve your metabolic health?

As in many cases, a talk with a health care provider is your best starting point. Ask a trusted medical professional whether it would be appropriate for you to have a routine lab screening that looks at factors like cholesterol and blood sugar. Many lab screenings are available at our urgent care centers near your home or work.

Once you understand your risk level, you can consider making diet and lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, eating more vegetables and working more physical activity into your week. (These efforts may result in weight loss, too, but will definitely boost your metabolic health and overall well-being.)

Finally, don’t forget to make time for sleep and relaxation. According to Dr. Kumar, these beneficial practices have “taken a hit in our modern society with technology and what often feels like a 24-hour work day.”

As a starting point, try visiting the National Sleep Foundation for some sleeping tips and tricks and checking in with the American Heart Association to learn about stress management.