9 Essential elements of metabolically healthy meals

Healthy meals aren't just about flat glucose—they're about building a metabolically healthy body that produces and uses energy effectively. Here are nine key elements to constructing optimal meals—plus, eight practical tips you can use.

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One might assume that any meal that gets a flat glucose response is metabolically healthy. This would be wrong.

We can game the system in a lot of ways: I could sit at my kitchen table and drink nothing but canola oil and vodka for a week, and my glucose would likely stay stable. Both items are low carb. But they obviously aren’t healthy. And ingesting only these products would rapidly lead to metabolic dysfunction.

What we’re here to do is build a metabolically healthy body. While many factors beyond food go into this quest (more on those next month), our primary tool for building optimal metabolic health is food. I focus on at least nine metabolism-optimizing elements when I build my meals.

They include what we need to put into our meals, what we need to take out of our meals, and when we need to eat meals. The good news is that these strategies are not all about deprivation; they are about giving your body the best food-based building blocks and molecular information to have a metabolically optimized system. Focus on putting the good stuff in and a lot of the rest takes care of itself!

Food is so fundamental because we’re exposed to a lot of it—about a metric ton per year! Food creates the physical structure of our bodies (cells, DNA, hormones, neurotransmitters), feeds our microbiome, and impacts gene expression and cell signaling. Once you understand the elements of a diet that supports your metabolic pathways, you’ll find that crafting optimal meals is much easier. Below I’ve detailed nine key elements of metabolically healthy meals, followed by eight key ways I consistently implement them in my life.

1. Load up on micronutrients: From a past newsletter, you already know I think micronutrients are magical! These molecules—such as magnesium, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins—act as cofactors, genetic regulators, and structural elements of our bodies. They facilitate the optimal action of so many key biological processes, including mitochondrial pathways and, thus, how the body handles glucose. Unfortunately, our diets are more micronutrient depleted than ever, in part because of our declining soil quality.

Several micronutrients are cofactors for metabolic health processes, which we outline in detail in this article, along with where to get them (e.g., Brazil nuts for selenium and pumpkin seeds for magnesium).

2. Get more fiber: Fiber is a carbohydrate from plants that the body mostly doesn’t break down, so it doesn’t end up as glucose in your bloodstream. Instead, it feeds the gut microbiome, which has beneficial effects on metabolic health, such as improved glucose and insulin levels, thanks to short-chain fatty acids. It also keeps gut inflammation downprotects the gut’s mucus membrane, and slows glucose absorption.

In his book Fat Chance, Dr. Robert Lustig calls fiber “half of the ‘antidote’ to the obesity pandemic.”

According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, “More than 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber.” And sadly, this is talking about the low bar of about 30 grams per day. We likely want 50 grams or more.

3. Include more antioxidants: Antioxidants are molecules that protect against oxidative stress—a state of excess reactive oxygen species (ROS) in your cells linked to diseases like cancer and diabetes. Of note, many micronutrients (like selenium and vitamin E) are also antioxidants, so there is some overlap with the earlier point, but it’s worth thinking about the two separate and important functions of micronutrients and antioxidants.

Normally, ROS come from the manufacturing of energy within the mitochondria. But high concentrations of ROS can damage proteins, fats, or nucleic acids (like those found in DNA) and lead to dysfunctional cell biology. Antioxidants, which can either be produced by the body or obtained through certain foods, manage ROS in several ways, from binding and neutralizing them to breaking chemical chain reactions that produce extra ROS.

We want to eat antioxidant-rich foods (think: colorful plants) and items that stimulate our antioxidant pathways, such as cruciferous and green vegetables, coffee, and cold-water fish rich with omega-3s. Cauliflower rice stir-fries, broccoli soup, and collard greens wraps are three of my favorite ways to get cruciferous veggies! These foods upregulate a genetic pathway called Nrf2 that supports antioxidants. Read more about oxidative stress and antioxidants here.

4. Home in on omega-3 fats: Omega-3 fatty acids—including ALA, EPA, and DHA—are key elements of cell structure, inflammatory pathways, and metabolic pathways. Omega-3s also contribute to arteries being more elastic, which wards off cardiovascular disease. In cells throughout the body, omega-3s serve to bind to nuclear receptors to regulate gene expression, facilitating communication between cells.

Getting enough omega-3s also limits the impact of omega-6s, a fatty acid that, in excess, is associated with inflammation. The standard Western diet contains a ratio of as much as 16:1 omega-6s to omega-3s, when it should be closer to 1:1. This is largely due to high consumption of refined seed and vegetable oils (think canola, vegetable, safflower, sunflower, and corn oils—all high in omega-6s) and less omega-3-rich whole foods, like fatty fish, chia seeds, flax, and walnuts.

5. Champion probiotic-rich fermented foods: Trillions of microorganisms reside on and inside our bodies. They benefit us by secreting gut-derived metabolic hormones, strengthening our gut barrier integrity, and developing our gut immunity. While fiber can help feed these bacteria to promote healthful populations, consuming probiotic-rich fermented foods is also valuable. Recent research shows that a high fermented food diet (around six servings per day!) steadily increased microbiota diversity and decreased inflammatory markers.

A key part of what we are trying to achieve is the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs form in the digestive tract from specific gut bacteria fermenting non-digestible fiber. The amount of fiber and type of bacteria in the gut impact how much of these beneficial fatty acids we produce. Butyrate, for instance, has anti-inflammatory properties. People with Type 2 diabetes don’t produce as much butyrate as people without diabetes. Excessive inflammation may lead to insulin resistance and worse glycemic control.

The American Gut Project published research showing that people who ate more than 30 different types of plant foods per week had healthier and more diverse microbiomes than those who ate fewer than 10 per week.

6. Minimize refined sugar and grains: So far all the principles listed focus on things to add to the diet, but we’ve got some key items to remove: refined sugars and grains. We now eat vastly more carbohydrates as refined sugars and grains than at any point in history—as much as 10 times more than just a couple hundred years ago. Some reports say we are eating 152 pounds of sugar per year, per person! Other sources reference 66 pounds of added sugar per year. Regardless, it’s a lot. Our body has to process all that unnatural load, and that’s gumming up our systems and breaking down our metabolic machinery. The large glucose spikes our bodies have to process result in the connected phenomena of oxidative stress, fat storage, insulin resistance, endothelial (blood vessel) dysfunction, and mitochondrial dysfunction.

Keeping glucose levels more stable and minimizing glycemic variability is incredibly important, and one of the simplest ways to do this is to lose refined grains and sugars.

7. Focus on food timing: Narrow eating windows have several metabolic benefits, including promoting metabolic flexibility by forcing the body to use stored energy for fuel, giving the GI system a rest, and triggering fewer insulin spikes.

One study in overweight people showed that time-restricted eating for just four days had several benefits. One group ate between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. (a 6-hour feeding window); another group ate the same calories between 8 a.m.-8 p.m. (a 12-hour window). The first group showed significantly lower fasting glucose, fasting insulin, and mean glucose.

The time of day we eat matters, too, as our bodies may be naturally more insulin resistant at night. One study showed that eating later in the evening (8:30 p.m.) caused a significant increase in both insulin and glucose levels compared with eating the same meal at 9:30 a.m. I aim to avoid high glycemic meals late at night, as I know my body will almost always produce an exaggerated glucose response. In her book, Women, Food, and Hormones, Dr. Sara Gottfried recommends 14–16 hours of fasting per night.

8. Combine foods optimally: Eating carbohydrates alone is likely to spike glucose more than if the carbohydrates are eaten with fat and/or protein. “Preloading,” or combining meals with fat or protein, can minimize the quick absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. In one study, consuming 23 grams of protein and 17 grams of fat 25–30 minutes before carbohydrates significantly decreased post-meal glucose elevation in people without diabetes and those with insulin resistance. Similarly, eating fat in conjunction with a carbohydrate load may decrease the post-meal glucose spike. One study found that eating three ounces of almonds with a meal of white bread led to a significantly lower post-meal glucose response than white bread eaten alone. I rarely eat fruit without pairing it with a fat, protein, and fiber source—usually almond butter and chia seeds, or I add fruit to chia pudding or unsweetened yogurt.

Basil seed pudding (made with cocoa and coconut milk) with blueberries, bee pollen, and a dollop of unsweetened coconut yogurt

9. Choose organic when possible: Unfortunately, some pesticides are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can damage our metabolic machinery and are causally linked to obesity. Opting for organic when possible will help you avoid these chemicals. Focus especially on avoiding the dirty dozen. Since organic can be pricier, I tend to buy whatever frozen, fresh, or canned organic products are on sale; this gets me to try new things, and brings down the cost!

What You Can Do to Incorporate These Tips

These strategies may seem overwhelming, but taken as a whole, they are simple: Eat a diverse array of real, clean food, and don’t eat too close to bedtime! Personally, I keep a mental checklist of the first five components above (micronutrients, fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fats, probiotics) and make sure I’m hitting each of them with almost every meal. These are my habits:

1. Eat a colorful diet to ensure a variety of antioxidants and micronutrients.

How I do it: For me, grocery shopping is a micronutrient and antioxidant hunt. I see it as a challenge to fit as many micronutrients and antioxidants in my cart as humanly possible. I walk around the produce aisle, grabbing the most colorful array of plants I can find, and aim to make my cart a work of art. Since my food is becoming my future brain and body and I want my life to be colorful and full of joy, then my cart must reflect that! And if I don’t know how to cook something, I just Google it or chop it up and throw it in a hodge-podge veggie stir-fry and add a protein, some spices, and a whole food fat like tahini. The beautiful thing about veggies is that they almost all taste good together!

What’s in your cart is becoming your brain and body. Make it a work of art!

2. Aim for 30 different types of plant foods per week, across fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.

How I do it: See above! Over the next couple of days, count how many plants you are getting each day, and see if you’re on track for 30 per week. Then bump this up and see if you can hit 30 in a day!

A whole foods pad thai made from spiralized daikon, shredded kale, grated carrot, scallions, basil leaves, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, cilantro. Sauce of coconut milk, almond butter, jalapeno, ginger, red miso, garlic, limes, dates, and cayenne. Plus a crown of spiralized cucumbers. Eighteen plants in one meal!

3. Learn to cook plants in creative, fun ways.

How I do it: Throw out the recipe rule book. Pink hummus made from beet sauerkraut, pinto beans, tahini, and dill? Why not! Pesto made from arugula, kale, walnuts, nutritional yeast, olive oil, and flake salt? Sure!

Get micronutrients, antioxidants, and probiotics wherever you can! Follow my Instagram for more inspiration—I have more than 700 saved story highlights of fun plant meals. My absolute favorite cookbooks for learning to cook plants include Food Food Food by The Ranch MalibuWhole Food Cooking Every DayThe Forest FeastI Am GratefulIt’s All Good, and Inspiralize Everything. (Yes a spiralizer is worth it!) I cannot say enough good things about these books—they will change your life!

I highly recommend taking a few healthy cooking classes online or in person to learn how to be facile with kitchen tools and use diverse spices and plants.

Have fun with it! A ying-yang of cauliflower puree (steamed cauliflower blended with nutritional yeast, cashews, garlic, olive oil, salt), curried carrot puree (steamed carrots, sunflower seeds, curry, lemon, cumin, garlic), chickpeas, mushrooms, collard greens, thyme, and beet sauerkraut!

4. Keep a variety of fermented foods around, and top most of your meals with them!

How I do it: I stock things like kimchi, beet sauerkraut, carrot and ginger kraut, and cabbage sauerkraut so that they are always handy. You will rarely be served a meal from me without a big dollop of kraut on top, which adds a great tang to almost any dish! I also keep handy non-dairy unsweetened yogurts like Coconut Cult and Cocojune to pair with fruit and chia seeds or to top a savory dish in place of sour cream. Studies show that six servings of probiotic foods may be optimal for a diverse microbiome—that’s a lot! Start loading up. These foods have the added benefit of being micronutrient- and antioxidant-rich.

Kombucha is also a good option, but only if it is very low sugar, which most aren’t. For instance, Lion Heart has 2 grams of sugar per serving; try not to go above 2-3 grams per serving.

Kraut on everything!

5. Keep fiber sources easily accessible.

How I do it: In almost all meals, I incorporate mega high-fiber foods, like chia seeds, flax seeds, flax crackersbasil seeds, canned or fresh beans, cooked lentils, or konjac root pasta (like nuPasta). I keep chia and basil seeds out on the counter and sprinkle them on most things I eat! Chia or basil seed pudding with fruit is a fabulous breakfast filled with fiber and omega-3s. In just two tablespoons, chia seeds have almost 20 grams of fiber, while basil seeds have nearly 15.  Nuts and seeds generally are fiber rich, so they are a great snack. I also love flax tortillas, which are simple and have no net carbs and lots of fiber.

I always have 8 to 10 cans of organic beans in my cupboard so that I can pop open a can, rinse them, and add them to a stir-fry or a green salad, make a quick bean dip or hummus, or build a standalone bean salad. (I love a snack of straight black beans with tahini, liquid aminos, and kraut!) You can also get dried beans or lentils and cook up a big batch for the week.

Flax tortillas with bean and pepper saute, and kraut on top. Fiber, omega-3s, and probiotics.

6. Keep omega-3 sources at the ready.

How I do it: Cans of wild-caught salmon, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies can be kept in the cupboard to put on top of stir-fries or salads, made into dips, or used in a lettuce wrap. Wild-caught fish can also be kept frozen and ready for cooking into an entree. Additionally, chia, flax, and basil seeds are great sources of omega-3s—another reason to sprinkle them liberally! Keep these things stocked and accessible so you can top meals with them. I also travel with sardine cans or wild-caught tuna packets for flights or road trips so that I have an omega-3-packed, protein-rich snack handy.

Pink hummus with kraut on top, papaya, coconut yogurt with basil seeds, peppers, and avocado!

7. Cook with abundant spices and herbs, which are some of the highest antioxidant foods around.

How I do it: I keep all my spices out on my counter so that they are really easy to grab. Since chopping herbs is a pain point for me, I keep a mini food processor on my counter so I can chop any herb instantly. (I use it at least two to three times a day to chop fresh herbs, nuts, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and more.) I also keep a coffee grinder handy that I only use for spices so I can quickly process large quantities of whole spices, like cumin seeds or peppercorns, which taste better ground. I buy 10 pounds of organic turmeric from Kauai and keep it in the freezer, since it’s much cheaper to buy in bulk than at the grocery store. Mince it and sprinkle on any savory dish, or put in smoothies.

8. Try to avoid anything with refined sugars (there are dozens of names for sugar—learn them!), refined seed oils (canola, vegetable, corn, sunflower, safflower), and refined grains (white or wheat flour).

How I do it: It’s a massive challenge to avoid all these things but we need to for optimal health—with that said, any reduction is helpful. Disclaimer: Just so you don’t think I’m puritanical, there are a few items I buy regularly at the store that have added sugar, like kombucha (look for low sugar), and dark chocolate (I get organic 85% dark chocolate by Alter Eco or Green and Blacks—both have 4g sugar per serving). Neither spike my glucose.

Read every single label, and just don’t buy things with added sugars, white flour, wheat flour, or refined seed and vegetable oils. For the latter, organic avocado oil, coconut oil, and olive oil are better options. Find alternatives to the foods you love that contain these ingredients and message your favorite brands to tell them what you want. If you love crackers, fortunately there are Flackers and Hu Kitchen crackers that don’t contain grains or bad oils. If you like chips, Siete makes a chip with avocado oil. If you like pasta, try zucchini noodles, black bean pasta, or nuPasta from konjac noodles. If you like bread, try almond or coconut flour bread. We have lots of swap roundups on the Levels blog.

Zucchini noodles with pesto made from arugula, kale, basil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, olive, oil, garlic, nutritional yeast, salt, and water.

Final Thoughts

You can do this! Remember to focus on a constructive approach to health, with your mental energy focused on the useful and healthful things you’re putting into the temple of your body, rather than the things you’re taking out. Our mission here is to build a metabolically healthy body, which means supplying it with the key nutrients it needs to do its amazing work. And the beauty is, you can learn how to craft a nutrient-rich meal that doesn’t spike your glucose by testing out different combinations and iterating!

No spike nutrients: bolognese with green lentils, cremini mushrooms, tomato puree, carrots, kale, leeks, olive oil, yellow onions, garlic, basil, oregano, black pepper, red chili; plus red peppers and tahini.