Q: My doctor told me I have the Metabolic Syndrome. What does this mean, and what can I do about it?
A: Metabolic syndrome isn’t a true disease (that’s why researchers and health professionals have labeled it a “syndrome”). The metabolic syndrome describes a cluster of risk factors which identify individuals at increased risk of developing a chronic condition — type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or stroke — later in life. Metabolic syndrome is common among individuals who are overweight (particularly those who carry most of their weight around their waist).
Doctors diagnose metabolic syndrome in patients who have at least three of the following conditions: elevated blood pressure (130/85 mmHg or higher), elevated triglycerides (150 mg/dL or higher), low HDL cholesterol (below 50 mg/dL for women, below 40 mg/dL for men), large waist circumference (greater than 35" for women, greater than 40" for men), and fasting blood sugar higher than 100 mg/dL. The combination of three or more of these factors is dangerous, even if the numbers are only slightly out of the normal range. A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome indicates that your blood vessels and organs are being exposed to a toxic, pro–inflammatory environment that, though still in its early stages, can eventually manifest itself as diabetes or a heart attack.
Metabolic syndrome is sort of like an advanced warning system to put you and your doctor on high alert— unless you make significant changes to your lifestyle, you’re at great risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, by making heart–healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can improve each of the risk factors — and solve all five problems with one approach. If you’ve been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, here’s what you can do to turn the tide and lower your risk.
Lose Weight: Losing weight shrinks your waist circumference, lowers blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglycerides, and improves blood sugar control. In one study of individuals with metabolic syndrome, two–thirds of the participants who lost more than 10 percent of their body weight over the course of 2 years no longer met the criteria for metabolic syndrome at the end of the study.
Get Active: Boosting your physical activity level can improve every risk factor associated with metabolic syndrome, and help you lose weight and reign in your waistline. Try brisk walking for at least 30 minutes on most, but preferably all, days of the week. If finding time to exercise is a challenge, split up your exercise into 10–minute chunks spaced throughout the day. As long as your total activity time totals 30 minutes, you’ll still reap the same health benefits.
Give Your Diet a Makeover: Following a heart–healthy diet can help decrease inflammation, lower your cholesterol, and moderate blood sugar levels. You’ll want to limit saturated and trans fats, refined carbs, and added sugar and make vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, fatty fish, and reduced–fat dairy products your dietary staples. You can use the nutrition guidelines in my sections on High Triglycerides, High Blood Pressure, and High Cholesterol to help guide you, since my food prescription is similar for all of these conditions.
Always check with your doctor when determining the proper diet and exercise plan for you, and be sure to follow up with your physician at regular check–ups to see how your lifestyle changes are impacting your risk factors.