Any guess at what disorder affects 40 percent of people over the age of 60? It’s called metabolic syndrome, which unfortunately does not simply mean that your metabolism is slow or out of whack.
Metabolic syndrome is a metabolic disorder that involves not one, but a combination of three or more of the following health issues: abdominal obesity, high blood sugar, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure or low HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
The term “metabolic” refers to the biochemical processes involved in the body’s normal functioning. When you have metabolic syndrome, your body is in a state of serious malfunction. Metabolic syndrome increases your risk for some very concerning and possibly deadly health issues, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
But there’s good news. There’s hope for getting your body metabolically back on track as well as keeping it on track throughout your entire life. Some of the best ways to avoid metabolic syndrome include maintaining a healthy weight, regularly exercising and eating a plant-centric diet while avoiding foods that may slow the metabolism.
In fact, a loss of just 3 percent to 5 percent of your current body weight can lower your triglycerides, blood glucose and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Greater amounts of weight loss can also improve blood pressure readings, lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol.
Along with the common metabolic syndrome symptoms, risk factors and causes that you need to be aware of, learn about the foods, supplements and lifestyle changes that can help prevent or recover from this dangerous syndrome.
What Is Metabolic Syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome is also sometimes called dysmetabolic syndrome, metabolic disease, insulin resistance syndrome or even syndrome X. What is metabolic syndrome exactly? It’s actually the term for a cluster of conditions, including abdominal obesity, high triglyceride levels, high fasting blood sugar levels, high blood pressure or low “good” HDL cholesterol. When a person has three or more of these metabolic risk factors occurring together, then he or she is diagnosed as having metabolic syndrome.
About 85 percent of people who have type 2 diabetes also have metabolic syndrome. These individuals have a much higher risk for heart disease than the 15 percent of people who have type 2 diabetes without metabolic syndrome.
It’s scary but true that most of the disorders associated with metabolic syndrome are symptomless. However, there are multiple metabolic syndrome symptoms that can be identified.
1. Large waist circumference
One very common visible sign of metabolic syndrome is a large waist circumference: at least 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than at your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
2. High Fasting Blood Sugar
If you have very high blood sugar, then you might experience the signs and symptoms of diabetes like increased thirst, increased urination, fatigue and blurred vision.
A normal fasting blood sugar level is less than 100 mg/dL. A fasting blood sugar level between 100–125 mg/dL is considered prediabetes. A fasting blood sugar level of 126 mg/dL or higher is considered diabetes. A fasting blood sugar level of 100 mg/dL or higher (or being on medicine to treat high blood sugar) is considered a metabolic risk factor.
3. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is another symptom and risk factor for metabolic syndrome, which can go unnoticed unless you check your blood pressure regularly. A blood pressure of 130/85 mmHg or higher (or being on medicine to treat high blood pressure) is considered a metabolic risk factor.
4. High Triglycerides
Another possible sign of metabolic syndrome is a high triglyceride level. Triglycerides are a type of fat or lipid found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. A triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL or higher (or being on medicine to treat high triglycerides) is a metabolic risk factor for metabolic syndrome.
5. Low HDL Cholesterol
HDL cholesterol is often referred to as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries. A HDL cholesterol level of less than 50 mg/dL for women and less than 40 mg/dL for men (or being on medicine to treat low HDL cholesterol) is risk factor for metabolic syndrome.
A doctor can diagnose metabolic syndrome based on the results of a physical exam and blood tests.
The two main causes of metabolic syndrome are being overweight or obese and a lack of physical activity. A 2017 study highlighted that an hour of weekly resistance exercise was associated with 29 percent lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome, compared to no resistance exercising. Participants who coupled aerobic exercise with their resistance exercise showcased a 25 percent lower risk. Metabolic syndrome is a metabolic disease that’s directly linked with insulin resistance, which is more common in obese and inactive people.
A healthy digestive system breaks down food into glucose. Next, insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, helps the glucose enter your cells to be used as fuel. However, if you experience insulin resistance, your cells won’t respond in a typical fashion to insulin, and hence, the glucose cannot enter your cells as easily. This phenomenon results in increased glucose levels in your bloodstream despite your body’s efforts to manage the glucose by producing more and more insulin.
If this goes on long enough, then your body is unable to make enough insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels and you can develop diabetes. Since about 85 percent of people who have type 2 diabetes also have metabolic syndrome, if you develop diabetes then your likelihood of having metabolic syndrome is increased by a very large margin.
Additional risk factors, most of which are unfortunately out of your control, that increase your chances of having metabolic syndrome include:
- Age — Your risk of metabolic syndrome increases with age, affecting 40 percent of people over the age of 60.
- Race — Hispanics and Asians seem to be at greater risk of metabolic syndrome than are people of other races.
- Family history of diabetes — You’re more likely to have metabolic syndrome if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes or if you had diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes).
- Other diseases — Your risk of metabolic syndrome is higher if you’ve ever had cardiovascular disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or polycystic ovary syndrome.
In addition, researchers continue to study other health conditions that may play a role in metabolic syndrome, including:
- Breathing problems during sleep (such as sleep apnea)
Aggressive and heart-healthy lifestyle changes are typically the main treatment for metabolic syndrome, as they get to the root causes of the disorder. Recommended lifestyle changes typically include heart-healthy eating, good stress management, losing and maintaining a healthy weight, more physical activity, and quitting smoking.
If lifestyle changes aren’t effective, then your doctor will likely prescribe medications to treat and control your risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol and high blood sugar.
A doctor’s main goal when treating metabolic syndrome is to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The second goal of treatment is to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes symptoms, if it hasn’t already developed.
Foods that Make Metabolic Syndrome Worse
1. Fake and Processed Foods
Avoid processed foods as much as possible. These frozen, bagged and boxed items are typically devoid of nutrients and loaded with unhealthy additives and preservatives that do nothing good for your health.
In fact, a study found that fast food consumption, some of the most unhealthy processed food on the planet, increases the incidence of metabolic syndrome in both children and adults. In addition, researchers in Brazil found that high consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with metabolic syndrome in adolescents.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have been directly linked with the occurrence of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of sugar substitutes containing aspartame, sucralose and saccharin may also be at an increased risk of excessive weight gain as well as development of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
3. Diet Sodas
Since diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners as well as other unhealthy ingredients, you will want to avoid these drinks. Studies show that the consumption of diet soda is associated with significantly greater risks of select incident metabolic syndrome components and type 2 diabetes.
According to one 2009 study, daily consumption of diet soda was associated with a 36 percent greater risk of metabolic syndrome and a 67 percent greater risk of having type 2 diabetes.
4. Trans Fats (Trans Fatty Acids)
Trans fats are found in foods made with hydrogenated oils and fats, such as margarine; baked goods like cookies, cakes and pies; crackers; frostings; and coffee creamers. They raise LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which is bad news for your waistline, heart health and metabolic disorders.
5. Refined Carbohydrates and Sugar
Consumption of these two are major culprits when it comes to high blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and the development of diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Sugar, especially when used to sweeten beverages, is a major culprit, as are refined carbs.
A study conducted in Korea, where metabolic syndrome incidence is high, looked at the effects of refined carbohydrates on this metabolic disorder. What the researchers found was that “the percentage of energy from carbohydrates in men and intake of refined grains, including white rice, in women were associated with metabolic syndrome.”
Limit alcohol intake is key to metabolic syndrome and good health in general. Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Alcohol also adds extra calories to your diet, which can cause weight gain.
However, limited consumption of alcohol can actually be good for you (such as red wine), as a meta-analysis published in Clinical Nutrition found that while heavy alcohol consumption indeed increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, “very light alcohol consumption seemed to be associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.”
Men should have no more than two drinks containing alcohol a day, while women should have no more than one drink containing alcohol a day. One drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Foods that Help Prevent Metabolic Syndrome
When it comes to metabolic syndrome and encouraging good health in general, you want to focus on consuming whole, real, high-quality food and drinks. Some of the top foods to help prevent or recover from metabolic syndrome include:
1. Fish & Omega-3 Foods
The omega-3 fatty acids found in wild-caught, cold-water fish have been found to help regulate heartbeat, reduce blood pressure, decrease blood clot formation and reduce overall inflammation, all of which decrease the risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, avocado, broccoli, cabbage, and carrots are a just a few of the many options when it comes to your daily intake of vegetables, which are loaded with disease-fighting and anti-inflammatory antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Eating avocados in particular has been found to be clinically associated with lower metabolic syndrome in U.S. adults because avocado benefits your gut. Think of a rainbow as you make your daily vegetable choices (red bell peppers to pumpkin to yellow squash to arugula to purple eggplant). This way, not only do you keep your meals interesting, but you obtain all of the great vitamins and nutrients vegetables can offer you.
Similar to vegetables, there are so many options that not only taste good, but help you ward off metabolic syndrome. You can opt for apples, bananas, oranges, pears or prunes if you need some ideas that are easy to consume quickly or on the go. In moderation (so you don’t overdo it on natural sugar), daily fruit consumption is an easy and therapeutic habit to develop if you haven’t already.
Pomegranate and pomegranate seeds in particular have been shown to help ameliorate metabolic syndrome. Research published in Food & Nutrition concluded that pomegranate creates hypoglycemic effects, including increased insulin sensitivity, inhibition of glucose, lowered total cholesterol, improvement of blood lipid profiles, plus anti-inflammatory effects.
Some delicious and tasty legumes to try include kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lima beans. Rich in fiber and protein, legumes are an excellent daily choice for keeping blood sugar stable and your waistline trim. And they’re particularly useful in preventing metabolic syndrome.
A study examined the effects of legumes on metabolic syndrome. A validated 48-item food frequency questionnaire was used to assess dietary behaviors of 2,027 individuals pulled from the Isfahan Healthy Heart Program. Researchers found that “all MetS components were less prevalent among subjects with regular legume intake.”
5. Whole Grains
High-fiber foods, like quality whole grains including oatmeal and brown rice, not only have proven benefits for diabetes and heart health, but studies indicate that they also help keep your waistline in check and help prevent metabolic syndrome. As such, whole grains are a part of a balanced, healthy metabolic syndrome diet treatment plan.
1. Ginseng, Berberine & Bitter Melon
Research published in 2009 showed that ginseng, berberine and bitter melon, which are commonly used in Chinese medicine, are potent natural remedies when it comes to metabolic syndrome. They help regulate glucose and lipid metabolism, which directly and positively affect weight management.
2. Holy Basil
When researchers from the Department of Home Science at Azad University of Agriculture and Technology in India investigated the effects of holy basil leaves on blood glucose and serum cholesterol levels in humans through double-blind clinical trials, the outcomes showed that holy basil caused significant improvements in blood glucose control and mild improvements in cholesterol levels.
This suggests that basil supplementation can be a useful and safe way to help control diabetes and complications that result from the disease like metabolic syndrome.
Spirulina contains phycocyanin, a pigment that scientists have discovered possesses antihypertensive effects, meaning it lowers blood pressure. Japanese researchers claim that this is because consuming the blue-green algae reverses endothelial dysfunction in metabolic syndrome.
4. Maca Root
In addition, an animal study shows that it significantly improves glucose tolerance by lowering levels of glucose in the blood, which improves heart health and conditions like diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
5. Red Yeast Rice
A study featured 50 patients with metabolic syndrome and the effects of a supplement containing both red yeast rice and olive extract. This trial found that supplementing with red yeast rice and olive extract greatly decreased lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2 as well as oxidized low-density lipoprotein.
Recommended Lifestyle Changes
Getting rid of belly fat is key when it comes to treating metabolic syndrome. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) helps your body become a fat-burning machine. It can consist of exercising at 90 percent or higher of your maximum effort for 30 to 60 seconds, slowing it down to low-impact for a recovery period of just 30 to 60 seconds, and then bumping it back up again.
If you’ve been spending hours on the treadmill without results, it’s because long-distance cardiovascular exercise can decrease testosterone and raise cortisol, the stress hormone. Increased levels of cortisol stimulate the appetite, increase fat storing, and slow down or inhibit exercise recovery. If HIIT training isn’t for you, then aim for at least 30 minutes per day of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, to lower your risk for metabolic syndrome.
2. Lose Weight
Through diet and exercise, losing weight can reduce insulin resistance and blood pressure, helping to get your metabolic syndrome under control.
3. Stop Smoking
Smoking cigarettes can lead to and worsen the health consequences of metabolic syndrome as well as increase your likelihood for heart problems and stroke, among other major health concerns.
- Metabolic syndrome is a metabolic disorder that involves not one, but a combination of three or more of the following health issues: abdominal obesity, high blood sugar, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure or low HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
- Metabolic syndrome is becoming more and more prevalent due to a rise in obesity rates among children and adults. In the not so distant future, metabolic syndrome may even overtake smoking as the leading risk factor for heart disease.
- Thankfully, there is realistic hope for naturally preventing metabolic disorders in the body. You can prevent or delay metabolic syndrome mainly with something that is very much in your control: lifestyle and diet changes.