Nutritionists and doctors explain the importance of eating and sipping to support a healthy metabolism.
Whether you’re a long-time health enthusiast or new to the wellness game, you’ve probably heard about metabolism, a vital set of cellular processes we all need to live and thrive. Your metabolism involves the chemical reactions in your cells, which determines your overall health on so many levels. While some of our metabolism is determined by unique genetics, how we live, move, and eat can all have an effect on it, too. As a result, the conversation around nutrition and metabolism often focuses on the best foods to eat to improve or maintain a healthy and efficient metabolism—but it’s just as important to recognize foods (and drinks) that can negatively affect metabolism, too.
How Food Affects Metabolism
“The food we eat is fuel for [the] body. Our metabolism is the process that delivers that fuel to power our organs and [allow us] to go about our way through life,” explains William W. Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Your Diet: Burn Fat, Heal Your Metabolism, and Live Longer.
It’s a lot like filling up your car with gas; choosing high- or low-quality fuel will influence how well the car performs and how long it lasts, Dr. Li says. In the realm of health, overconsuming low-quality foods can mess with metabolic functioning and efficiency, increasing the risk for chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
What Types of Nutrients Slow Down Metabolism?
What do those foods look like, exactly? In general, the worst foods for your metabolism are high in saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars, and low in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These types of food (and drinks) can increase the risk of inflammation and oxidative stress, paving the way for poor metabolic health. The best foods for metabolism are generally the opposite. They’re typically rich in healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals, all of which work against inflammation and oxidative stress.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that metabolic health can’t be defined by eating (or avoiding) a single food or nutrient. Diet—your food choices and eating pattern—is just one piece of the metabolic puzzle, and it’s crucial to consider all your lifestyle habits—including physical activity, sleep, and stress management—when aiming to improve metabolism. Plus, some factors that impact metabolism are uncontrollable, like genetics and age.
But if you want to support your metabolism and reduce the risk of metabolic issues, limiting or avoiding eating certain foods in abundance is a solid place to start (as is adding in and prioritizing metabolism-supporting foods!). Here, experts list the most troublesome foods that can slow your metabolism and impact overall health, plus tips for enjoying each one more wisely.
Worst Foods to Eat (in Excess) for Metabolic Health
Whole grains consist of three parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. Most of a grain’s good-for-you fiber, vitamins, and minerals are found in the bran and germ, which is why whole grain foods, made with all three parts intact (like brown rice, 100-percent whole grain breads, and oats), are considered nutritionally dense. Fiber in particular is beneficial for the gut, which regulates metabolic health.
On the flipside, refined grains, found in refined carb foods like white breads and white pasta, have had the nutrient-rich germ and bran removed, leaving only the starchy and less nutritious, albeit tasty, endosperm. Ultimately, this reduces their nutrient content, and when eaten in excess, refined grains provide calories, or energy, but without the steadying, helpful nutritional perks of the germ and bran. This can eventually lead to inflammation, negatively affecting metabolic hormones the body needs to efficiently process energy, Dr. Li says.
Due to its high content of added sugar, drinking soda can be a strain on your metabolism. According to registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, sugar in liquid form (such as soda) is digested more quickly than other foods. This can overwhelm the liver and increase the risk for dyslipidemia, or unhealthy fat levels in the blood, which is a risk factor for metabolic disease. It can also promote excess body weight and presence of non-lean body mass, potentially dysregulating metabolic health, Pasquariello says.
Bottled Fruit Juices
Like soda, conventional bottled fruit juices can stress out your metabolism. It’s all thanks to the added sugars, which are highly caloric while lacking important micronutrients, Dr. Li says (aka, they’re the opposite of nutrient-dense). This, he adds, can lead to “inflammation in the body and an inefficient metabolism.”
Worth noting, these concerns don’t apply to the sugar found naturally in whole fruits. Whereas fruit contains satiety-inducing fiber (and many essential plant compounds, vitamins, and minerals), bottled fruit juices do not. This means drinking fruit juice won’t satisfy hunger, provide key micro- or macronutrients, and potentially cause you to consume more, keeping the cycle going, Pasquariello explains.
If you’re on a mission to support metabolic health, go easy on the booze. As Dr. Li explains, drinking too much alcohol can trigger inflammation and derail your metabolism. For starters, most alcoholic beverages lack micronutrients your body needs to function properly. Additionally, “alcohol is a toxin and poisons your brain, liver, and gut microbiome,” Dr. Li explains. This is key as your gut is in charge of streamlining your metabolism, so it’s important to keep it healthy.
But how much is too much alcohol, exactly? The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. There are also plenty of mocktail recipes to choose from, making it easy to enjoy a tasty drink sans alcohol (or hangovers!).
Eating a lot of red meat often can pave the way for metabolic disease, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Pasquariello says. The reason? Red meat is rich in saturated fat and heme iron, two components linked to higher levels of inflammation (which, again, can harm metabolism). They’re also associated with insulin resistance, a risk factor for high blood glucose levels and type 2 diabetes.
If you regularly eat red meat, you don’t need to omit it completely or all at once. Aim to limit your intake to three portions per week and cut back slowly to see what works best for you, Pasquariello recommends. When possible, swap the red meat for leaner proteins like chicken, turkey, fish, or beans. It also helps to treat meat (in general) as the “condiment” of your plate rather than the star of the show, she suggests.
Another food category that can slow your metabolism is highly processed meats, such as hot dogs, deli meats, bacon and other packaged breakfast meats, and cured meat, like corned beef. Beyond their high content of saturated fat and heme iron, these foods contain sneaky-high amounts of sugar and sodium, plus additives and byproducts that can damage your gut microbiome, Dr. Li says. This can negatively impact metabolism, as your microbiome plays a major role in regulating metabolic functions.
“The chemicals in processed meats can [also] be inflammatory,” he continues. But if your microbiome is struggling, your body will have a hard time counteracting inflammation and keeping your metabolism in check.
Sweetened snacks, including baked goods and candy, can contribute to poor metabolism when eaten in excess. Again, too much added sugar can trigger inflammation, making it difficult for metabolism to run efficiently. A high sugar intake can also lead to oxidative stress, further damaging the body’s metabolic pathways, Pasquariello says.
Understandably, it can feel impossible to avoid added sugar, as it comes in so many forms. According to Pasquariello, examples include honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, and corn syrup, just to name a few versions. A simple way to cut back on sugar is to eat enough nutrient-dense calories from sources like lean protein, vegetables, and healthy fats throughout the day, as this will help limit pangs of hunger and those sweet-tooth cravings, Pasquariello says. You can also try reaching for more lower-sugar snacks, like fresh fruit with nut butter.
There’s no doubt that salty bites like pretzels, potato chips, and seasoned nuts are staples in the snack pantry. But over time, eating too many of these high-sodium foods can increase blood pressure, “leading to risk factors for metabolic disease like hypertension and insulin resistance,” Pasquariello says. Eventually, this can snowball into more serious chronic conditions, including heart disease.
To limit your salt consumption, take a tip from Pasquariello and try making homemade snacks, like crispy baked potato chips. This will let you control the salt while getting your snack fix. Salt cravings can also indicate boredom, stress, dehydration, and even lack of sleep, according to Pasquariello, “so when you feel a craving for a salty snack, try addressing these needs first,” before digging a bag of chips.
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