Top 10 foods for metabolic health!
Updated: Nov 18
We often talk about the foods we need to avoid to improve our metabolic health. But did you know there are foods we can eat that actually improve our metabolic health!. Good metabolic health is fundamental to health, wellbeing and longevity and when our metabolic health declines, we increase risk for diseases like pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Most of us are aware of the importance of avoiding refined carbs and minimising added sugar. But we don’t talk enough about the great foods we can eat which can actually improve metabolic health. Here we list our top ten foods that keep metabolic disease at bay!
Some of them might surprise you!
Our ten great foods for metabolic health
This is a list of 10 really great foods which can help you to improve your metabolic health. They have been chosen because there is good evidence they have a positive impact on metabolic health, such as improving blood glucose, reducing insulin resistance, improving blood lipids, lowering blood pressure or reducing waist circumference. We have provided links to the studies so if you want to look further into the evidence it is there for you. If you are looking to improve your metabolic health, or protect yourself from metabolic disease, we recommend you regularly include these foods in your diet.
1. Oily fish
Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and several research studies have found that the more fish you eat, the lower your risk of metabolic syndrome. This risk can be reduced substantially – in one study, the risk of metabolic syndrome was 40% lower in men who ate 60 g of fish a day or more.
Eating more oily fish has a positive impact on many factors that are important for metabolic and cardiovascular health. These include :
Lowering Triglycerides – omega-3 fatty acids lower the number of triglyceride fat molecules your body produces––which cuts the risk of heart disease and prevents the build-up of fat in the liver. Omega-3’s increase HDL cholesterol, which is also beneficial
Improving insulin sensitivity - higher levels of omega-3’s in the diet improves insulin sensitivity especially in people with metabolic health problems, although further research is needed in this area
Reducing inflammation - Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are anti- inflammatory and have been shown to dampen inflammatory reactions in the body. Inflammation is thought to contribute to the development of metabolic disease
Reducing blood pressure – many research studies have shown that omega-3 supplements reduce blood pressure, although results are not all consistent. And when it comes to eating fish rather than taking supplements, one study of older adults from several Mediterranean islands, found that eating at least 300 g of fish per week was associated with significantly lower blood pressure.
2. Dairy foods including cheese
As well as being great for our bones and teeth, the good news is that dairy foods, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are also really great for metabolic health! More and more evidence shows that dairy foods help protect our metabolic health. Three recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses (good quality research) demonstrate that the more you eat dairy, the lower your risk for metabolic disease:
A review of 41 observational studies found the more dairy foods are eaten, the lower the risk of metabolic syndrome (MetS). The greater the quantity of dairy foods eaten, the lower the risk of components of MetS, such as hyperglycaemia, (high blood sugar), high blood pressure, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol. The study showed that this was a dose-response relationship – so for each extra serving of milk consumed, there was a 12% lower risk of abdominal obesity, a marker of metabolic disorder. And for each extra serving of yoghurt, there was a 16% lower risk of hyperglycaemia.
A review of studies which tracked people over time, also found that total dairy consumption was inversely associated with the risk of MetS – that is, the greater the amount of dairy in the diet, the lower the risk of MetS. They found that higher total dairy, low-fat dairy, milk and yoghurt was associated with a lower risk of MetS
Most recently another review of 35 studies, involving nearly 400,000 people found the more milk and yoghurt consumed, the lower the risk of MetS.
In addition, the PURE study, a major international study which looked at the impact of dairy intake on cardiovascular disease and mortality in 21 countries across 5 continents, concluded that:
‘Dairy consumption was associated with lower risk of mortality and major cardiovascular disease’
Finally - Cheese! – a recently published major review and meta-analysis found that as well as reducing fractures, eating more cheese reduced risk for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
3. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) has been used to flavour and preserve foods since ancient times. It has also been used for medicinal purposes, such as healing wounds, treating infections and even for managing diabetes. More recently, research has shown this vinegar valuable for supporting blood glucose.
Apple Cider Vinegar is made by fermentation. First, the yeasts ferment the sugars in the apples into ethanol, then, a secondary fermentation process takes place in which acetic acid bacteria oxidise the ethanol into acetic acid, creating vinegar.
Apple Cider Vinegar is thought to support metabolic health in multiple ways:
Blood Glucose - taking Cider Apple vinegar at the start of a meal blunts the glucose response to carbohydrates in the meal. One study showed that 2 tablespoon of vinegar taken before a meal reduced blood glucose response by 20% in both diabetic and non-diabetic people
Cholesterol– a meta-analysis of 9 clinical trials involving 686 people found that regular consumption of ACV reduced total cholesterol. The study also showed that ACV lowered fasting blood glucose and HbA1c, although the glucose lowering effect was not significant in people without diabetes.
Weight – regularly taking ACV may also make a positive contribution to weight-loss. In a study of healthy individuals those taking 2 tablespoons of ACV in water after meals on average lost 4lbs by the end of 12 weeks. This may be due to the ACV having an appetite suppressant effect.
4. Cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, collard greens and brussels’s sprouts, contain sulphur compounds that promote antioxidants and reduce inflammation in the body, and thought to be protective against cancer. Eating more green leafy and cruciferous vegetables may also improve metabolic health and reduce risk for cardiovascular disease. One meta-analysis found risk for cardiovascular disease reduced by up to 16% with higher consumption of these vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables are a great source of vitamin K1 and along with green leafy vegetables, are the major source of vitamin K for most people. Vitamin K is very important to metabolic health. The Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study involving nearly 55,000 residents, found that those with the highest intake of vitamin K1 had a 31% lower risk of diabetes compared to those with the lowest intake. This was a similar finding to those from other observational studies, such as the PREDIMED and EPIC-NL studies, which found risk of diabetes reduced with higher intakes of vitamin K1
Cruciferous vegetables also contain sulphur-containing compounds called glucosinolates which are converted in the body to indols and isothiocyanates. Indols and isothiocyanates appear to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation. They are also thought to help convert WAT (white adipose fat) to more metabolically healthy brown adipose fat. Whilst research is limited on humans in this area to date, several small studies have shown metabolic benefits from the consumption of broccoli sprouts powder, including improvements in insulin resistance and a reduction in inflammatory markers.
One of our favourites! Not only does this spice have a wonderful flavour, good evidence shows it is also really useful for improving metabolic health.
Cinnamon seems to have benefit for those who have metabolic conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and pre-diabetes, where cinnamon has been used alongside other treatments. A meta-analysis of 16 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) found cinnamon significantly reduced fasting blood glucose and HOMA-IR, a measure of insulin resistance, in people with Type 2 Diabetes or pre-diabetes. The reason it is thought cinnamon has such a positive impact on fasting glucose is because it contains a compound called MHCP, which mimics insulin and helps cells absorb glucose from the blood.
Looking more broadly at metabolic health, cinnamon appears to improve a number of metabolic indicators, including insulin resistance. Recently a systematic review of 35 trials reviewed the impact of cinnamon on people with metabolic diseases and found taking cinnamon led to:
A significant reduction in triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose
A favourable impact on HDL cholesterol and blood pressure
Improvements in HbA1c and measures of insulin resistance
The authors conclude that their findings:
‘Showed that cinnamon supplementation could have favourable effects on all risk factors associated with metabolic disease. Indeed, our results support beneficial effects of cinnamon supplementation on lipid profiles, glycaemic status markers, blood pressure parameters and waist circumference.’
Cinnamon lowers blood pressure
Another systematic review also found cinnamon helpful in reducing raised blood pressure; nine RCTs involving 641 people found cinnamon to significantly reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. The results were greatest when taking up to 2 grams per day for over 12 weeks, and the authors concluded that cinnamon should be used to help manage hypertension.
Cinnamon supports weight loss
Cinnamon can also help with weight loss, especially in those with a BMI of 30 or over. Two recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses (here and here) found that supplementing with cinnamon led to a significant reduction in body weight and BMI. One of the reviews also found that cinnamon reduced waist circumference and fat mass.
Weight loss reduction was greatest in those who were under 50 years of age with a baseline BMI of 30 or above. Best results were achieved with participants taking 2 grams of cinnamon/day or more for 12 weeks or longer
Ginger has a wonderful flavour and is remarkably effective for combatting nausea and sickness. But ginger also has great anti-inflammatory properties and important benefits for metabolic health.
In 2019 a systematic review and meta-analysis of 14 RCTs, involving 473 people, assessed the effect of ginger on overweight and obese people. This study only considered evidence from RCT so it can be regarded as good quality evidence. . Researchers found that supplementing with ginger led to:
A significant decrease in:
waist to hip ratio
insulin resistance index (HOMA-IR)
A significant increase in:
Another study found that 2 grams of ginger taken daily for 3 months led to significant improvements in metabolic health markers in 22 people with Type 2 diabetes. Significant reductions were found in fasting blood sugar, HbA1c, ApoB (a marker of potentially harmful blood lipids), and malondialdehyde (a marker of lipid oxidation), compared to a control group.
As larger quantities of ginger may lead to digestive symptoms, no more than 4g of ginger per day is recommended. One gram is equivalent to ½ tsp of powdered ginger or 1 tsp of grated, raw ginger.
7. Chia Seeds
These small seeds come from Salvia hispanica, a plant found in North America, Central America, South America, and Australia. Chia seeds are rich in ALA (alpha linolenic acid) an omega-3 fatty acid similar to that found in fish, which has so many health benefits including lowering the risk for heart disease.
These bulking and gelling effects of chia seeds seem to have particular metabolic benefits. Because chia seeds expand so much when they absorb liquid, it feels like you’re eating a larger quantity of food. Studies show that chia seeds create more feelings of satiety, or fullness, than other high fibre foods.
Fibre-rich foods, tend to slow digestion, which can prevent blood sugar spikes after eating a meal. Researchers suggest that chia's viscosity may make it more effective than other forms of fibre for blunting the glucose spike after a meal. In a study in which people took 50g of glucose along with either chia or flax, chia showed a lower initial rise in glucose and a lower overall rise in glucose than flax, despite flax having a higher fibre content.
The fibre in chia seeds also has a very positive impact on gut health, as it provides nourishment to the microbes in the gut. This type of fibre is used by the gut microbiome to produce short chain fatty acids, which are extremely important for metabolic health as they are thought to help with appetite regulation, blood glucose and insulin balance, and in reducing risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Chia seeds also contain polyphenols, which are anti-oxidants and help to prevent disease cause by oxidative stress, which is implicated in the development of many diseases, including metabolic dysfunction.
Turmeric is another spice with magical metabolic properties! Turmeric is high in the phytochemical curcumin, which helps reduce inflammation and free radical damage that may contribute to metabolic dysfunction.
A recently published umbrella review, which is a major review of the evidence, assessed the effects of Turmeric in Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome as assessed in 28 RCTs and found:
Fasting blood glucose and Hba1c decreased with curcumin supplementation
A number of the studies also found curcumin supplementation also led to significant reductions in insulin resistance (measured by HOMA-IR), LDL-Cholesterol and Triglycerides
Whilst turmeric is a great ingredient in curries, you can use it in all sorts of meals, including soups, stews and salads. Sprinkle it on eggs with black pepper (the pepper boosts curcumin’s absorption), or use it to make a turmeric latte.
9. Bitter Melon
Bitter melon has traditionally been used by indigenous people as a treatment for diabetes, and it is known for its role in controlling blood glucose and HbA1c . Bitter Melon, also known as bitter gourd, bitter squash, balsam pear, goya, and karela is a food produced on vines in hot climates, including countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It is also a staple food in Okinawa, which has one of the longest living populations in the world.
Recent research studies now appears to confirm Bitter Melon’s effectiveness in improving metabolic health. A number of studies have been undertaken to assess the impact of Bitter Melon on metabolic health:
A study in people with pre-diabetes were given either a 2,400 mg bitter melon extract or a placebo. At the end of 12 weeks those who had taken the bitter melon extract had lower blood glucose levels after an oral glucose tolerance test than they had at the beginning of the study and compared to a control group.
A trial found that 2380mg of bitter melon extract per day for 3 months led to a small but statistically significant reduction on fasting blood glucose compared to a control group, but with no reduction in HbA1c.
A study undertaken in 2018 found that people with Type 2 Diabetes taking 2000mg of bitter melon extract daily for 3 months had a reduction in HbA1c and a decrease in waist circumference, an important metabolic marker.
Whilst the reason for the beneficial impact of bitter melon is as yet unclear, it is thought that specific phytochemicals in the fruit and the seeds of bitter melon may have glucose-lowering properties. Other possible reasons include it's ability to reduce glucose absorption, it's role in the preservation of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells, or it's effect in suppressing enzymes involved in gluconeogenesis (a process in which the body creates new glucose). Bitter melon also has important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects which may reduce insulin resistance.
10. Green Tea and kombucha
People who drink more than 3-4 cups of tea per day have been found to have a one-fifth lower risk of getting diabetes compared to those who drink no tea. Whilst this association between tea drinking and reduced risk for metabolic disease has been shown for all tea, green tea in particular has long been known as a healthy drink.
Green tea has a particularly high concentration of polyphenols and contains a catechin called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a powerful antioxidant that inhibits several reactive oxygen species (ROS). Oxidative stress is a root cause of many diseases, including metabolic dysfunction, so antioxidants like EGCG are really important as they protect against cell damage and inflammation.
Green tea has been found to have positive effects on metabolic health, and has been shown to reduce fasting blood glucose, HbA1c and insulin. It is also shown to reduce blood pressure, LDL-Cholesterol and the build-up of plaque in the blood vessels – all risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
To get maximum benefit from green tea, its best to allow it to brew at a relatively low temperature (90C). In the summer months, try drinking it cold, served with mint, lemon or lime and maybe a slice of cucumber.
Kombucha is made from green or black tea fermented with bacteria and yeasts. It was consumed as early as 200BC in China, and it is now thought that this drink may have a positive impact on metabolic health.
In a recent study Kombucha made with green tea led to a recently significantly lower glycaemic and insulin response after a high glycaemic index carbohydrate-based meal compared with lemonade and unsweetened soda water. Whether this was similar to the action of vinegar on slowing digestion of carbohydrates, or due to the impact of polyphenols remains uncertain.
Previously, kombucha has been shown to lower hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) in mice. Research on the metabolic impact of kombucha on humans is in its infancy. However, a very recently published pilot study, the first clinical trial investigating a health benefit of kombucha among adults with Type 2 diabetes, showed that drinking kombucha for 4 weeks resulted in significant decreases in fasting blood glucose levels in diabetic subjects with elevated blood glucose levels ( >130 mg/dL) compared to baseline. It is thought possible that this impact may be as a results of the effect of the kombucha on the gut microbiome
Usually when we talk about improving metabolic health we talk about foods which cause damage. However, as you can see from the above, there are some foods which have a really positive impact on metabolic health. Whether you have metabolic health problems or want to guard agains them, we encourage you to include these wonderful foods in your everyday diet.