By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH
WebMD Medical Editor
Has your waist expanded over the years? Are you in the “borderline” category for a few medical issues? Do you have a nagging feeling that these health hiccups could be the beginning of something more serious?
If so, there’s a chance you have what’s called “metabolic syndrome” and you may not even be aware of it. Metabolic syndrome, also known as insulin resistance syndrome or syndrome X, is not a disease but a group of risk factors that increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
And the increase in risk is high. If you have metabolic syndrome, you’re twice as likely to get heart disease and 5 times more likely to develop diabetes than someone who doesn’t have it.
Do you have metabolic syndrome?
You have metabolic syndrome if you have 3 of the 5 following risk factors. The more factors you have, the higher your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Your doctor can easily get this information with a few tests.
1. A large belly or apple shaped body. Measure your waistline. You’re at risk if you’re a man with a waistline over 40 inches or you’re a woman with a waist over 35 inches.
2. A blood pressure of 130/85 or higher
3. Fasting blood sugar of 100 or higher
4. Triglycerides of 150 or higher
5. HDL cholesterol less than 40 for men and less than 50 for women
And, if you’re on medicine for any of these conditions that counts, too.
If you do have metabolic syndrome, you still have time to change your health trajectory. A healthy lifestyle through diet, exercise and weight loss will cut your risk dramatically.
Weight loss makes a huge difference, and you don’t have to get to your ideal body weight to reap the benefits. If you’re 200lbs and lose 14lbs – that’s 7%, you’ve taken a significant step in decreasing your odds of developing diabetes. Your blood pressure will also improve.
What diet is best for metabolic syndrome?
Mediterranean diet - The Mediterranean diet rich with olive oil or mixed nuts has been shown in studies to decrease the rate of heart attacks and strokes in a group at high risk for heart disease. So eat up – choose foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Also choose lean protein like fish and chicken. Stay away from processed foods and red meat.
DASH diet - The DASH diet emphasizes avoiding salt and sugar in foods and drinks. It was originally developed to treat high blood pressure. The DASH diet is low in salt with a goal of less than 2400mg/day. It’s rich in vegetables, fruits, and low fat dairy. And, like the Mediterranean diet, it also includes whole grains, lean meats, beans, seeds and nuts.
What exercise is best for metabolic syndrome?
Brisk walking is a great place to start exercising if you’ve not been active for a while. Work towards a goal of 30 minutes most days of the week. A good exercise program will do 3 things: pump your heart, strengthen your muscles, and improve your flexibility. Slow and steady increases in your exercise will help lower your blood pressure, level your blood sugars and improve your triglycerides and HDL fats - along with trimming your waistline.
What else can I do?
While diet and exercise changes may be enough for you to drop out of the metabolic syndrome cluster, first talk to your doctor, and even a nutritionist, to get a plan together. You may need medication to treat your conditions while you work on getting the lifestyle changes in full swing. As you lose weight, with your doctor’s guidance you can hopefully wean off of the blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol medications.
With aggressive changes in your lifestyle and treatment you can prevent future health disasters. And add quality years to your life.
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.