Metabolic syndrome is not a disease per se, but a cluster of symptoms that correlates closely with obesity and an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
What is metabolic syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome is also known as insulin resistance syndrome, or syndrome X. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of health conditions that occur with and/or lead to insulin resistance, which is when cells don’t respond as they should to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance causes blood sugar to stay high for longer than normal, leading to storage of excess energy as fat and not as glucose. It isn’t always clear whether obesity or metabolic syndrome happens first, but they certainly often go together. Most health professionals will consider a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome if at least three of the following are observed:
- Obesity, especially abdominal fat
- High blood pressure (hypertension or treatment for hypertension)
- High blood sugar (elevated fasting blood glucose levels)
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels (high triglycerides and/or low HDL)
A syndrome, by definition, is a description of a phenomenon, not a diagnosis. Metabolic syndrome describes a collection of health conditions that are likely to occur together. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-metabolic-syndrome-beyond-the-basics Having metabolic syndrome puts you at much higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In a study performed between 1999 and 2002, around 34% of participants were diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which would indicate that one in three American adults meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/28/11/2745.short
How do I treat metabolic syndrome?
The best treatment for metabolic syndrome is lifestyle change. https://webmd.com/heart/metabolic-syndrome/how-do-you-treat-metabolic-syndrome This is good news because it means that you don’t need to rely only on a healthcare professional’s treatment; you can take charge of your own health and make your life better.
There is no magic diet cure for metabolic syndrome, but there are several principles that are effective and will help improve both obesity and insulin resistance and will probably also affect cholesterol levels.
First, eat real food. That sounds too simple, but consider that many of the items for sale on grocery store shelves, in convenience stores, and in restaurants are processed ‘food-like-substances’ that bear very little resemblance to the original material. Eating real food means eating fresh fruits and vegetables that are lightly cooked, steamed, or baked. Try adding spices for flavor, but avoid fatty additives or too much salt! Eating real food means eating baked fish, whole grain bread, 100% beef, delicious salads, organic apples, and real honey. Eating real food means avoiding highly processed substitutes. Choose fresh and minimally processed where possible, and look for five or fewer ingredients on the ingredient list (they should all be words you can pronounce). Following this principle will automatically cut out some of the worst offenders for weight gain, including preservative-laden “snack foods”.
Cut the sugar. This is crucial for reversing insulin resistance. Every time you eat a high-sugar food or drink a sugary beverage, your blood sugar spikes. This spike causes a cascade of responses, including a surge of insulin, conversion of sugar to fat, and then a subsequent drop in blood sugar that increases cravings and stimulates appetite, in addition to making the insulin resistance worse. Sugar (especially hidden sugar in processed foods or drinks) is an often-overlooked source of empty calories. Cut the sugar, feel better, lose weight, and be kind to your body!
Lose weight. It really isn’t quite clear whether weight gain leads to insulin resistance, or if insulin resistance causes weight gain. But losing weight certainly improves your body’s ability to respond to normal levels of insulin. Weight loss is also important for addressing high blood pressure. Larger bodies require more pressure to move blood through the circulatory system, and even a seemingly small weight loss can improve blood pressure readings.
Following the exercise and diet tips above will help with weight loss. Here are a few more tips:
- Practice mindful eating. Simply paying attention to what you are eating, what it tastes like, and how it makes you feel will begin to change what you eat and how much.
- Aim for a moderate caloric deficit. Most men will maintain weight on a 2,500-calorie intake and lose on 2,000 calories. Most women will maintain at 2,000 and lose at 1,500. HOWEVER, a bigger caloric deficit is not better. If you have too large of a caloric deficit, your body will think that you are in a starvation and will begin to hang on to as much fat and energy as possible, even if that means sacrificing health. Maintain a moderate caloric deficit and remember that slow and steady weight loss is far more sustainable and healthy.
If you smoke, quit. You already know that smoking is bad for you, but you may not know that it’s not just about the cancer risk.
When you quit smoking, your blood pressure begins to return to normal within 20 minutes. The dopamine regulation system in your brain, which controls hunger, cravings, and appetite, begins to return to normal functioning. Food cravings, especially for salty or sweet foods, may temporarily get worse while your brain is undergoing this reset. Give yourself some grace for this process but do keep in mind that sugar has many of the same effects as nicotine on the brain. This means that you can dramatically speed up the process of reprogramming your dopamine reward system by NOT eating sugar. In other words, if you substitute sugar for smoking, it will take longer for the cravings to subside.
A Comprehensive Approach
Overcoming obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes is not a simple task. There is no magic pill or magic trick. But the good news is that there are answers beyond pills and surgery. Many of these are things you can do at home without a prescription while simultaneously following your healthcare provider’s treatment protocol.