Get the facts about what you can do to control, prevent, or reverse this group of health risk factors.
Do you have Syndrome X? Although it sounds mysterious, or perhaps experimental, Syndrome X is very common. Better known as metabolic syndrome, it is a disorder characterized by central obesity (also known as a spare tire), insulin resistance or glucose intolerance, blood fat disorders, and high blood pressure. Having any one of these factors can boost your chances of developing additional medical problems.
The good news is that with changes in diet and exercise habits, you can prevent, control, or even reverse metabolic syndrome. If you don’t, you could develop significant health risks related to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The percentage of people who have metabolic syndrome increases with age, so it’s important to start adjusting faulty health habits early on. Don’t wait for the signs and symptoms, which may not even appear until damage has already been done. And don’t wait for a diagnosis from your doctor; some doctors may not even tell you about simple, subtle modifications you can start making today. Here are 10 things you should know about metabolic syndrome.
1. Metabolic syndrome is closely linked to your family history, so ask your family members about their medical histories. Your family’s medical history is yours, too. If one of your close relatives has diabetes or heart disease, you could be a candidate for having metabolic syndrome.
According to Genetics Home Reference, a complete family health record includes information from three generations of relatives, including children, brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and cousins.
It may sound like a daunting task to collect this info, but questioning your family can evoke some interesting and heartfelt conversation. It could also protect your children and their children for generations to come.
2. It matters where you wear your fat. If you look more like an apple than a pear, your risk of developing metabolic syndrome is greater. Your doctor may criticize you for being overweight, but not mention how fat that settles in your belly boosts health risks more than weight that sits in your butt.
Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies says, “Reducing your waist circumference could have more of an impact on preventing and managing disease than medication.” Carrying weight around your middle, Palinski-Wade underscores, “is an indication of excess visceral fat, a key risk factor for the development of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers.” Focus on reducing waist size even more than the numbers on the scale, she advises.
3. A plant-based diet will help curb metabolic syndrome. Even the proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage a diet that is plant-focused. Julie Upton, MS, RD, of San Francisco and co-founder of Appetite for Health, encourages a Mediterranean style of eating. The Mediterranean diet showcases fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and seafood but has less meat, cheese, sugars, and sweets. Upton says, “Not only is this plan helpful for your heart, but it also lowers risks for metabolic syndrome.”
Although some would think this diet is a strict plan, people who live around the Mediterranean didn’t get together and say, “Let’s create a diet.” Instead, they sat together at the table and shared meals, conversations, and a healthy lifestyle that keeps families close and disease risks at bay.
4. Dietary fiber will help lower your risk of metabolic syndrome by lowering your cholesterol. Your doctor may have handed you a sheet of the foods you should be avoiding, but you might be more successful by taking a more positive approach: Focus on adding foods rich in soluble fiber, like oats and beans. Insoluble fibers like whole grains can provide a “moving experience” by transporting foods through your gastrointestinal tract while keeping you feeling satisfied. Fill at least half your plate with veggies and fruits, and choose whole-grain carbs to make less room on your plate (and in your stomach) for less beneficial choices.
5. What you drink can affect your risk for metabolic syndrome. If you’re lucky, your doctor will ask you about your diet, provide with you some guidance, and refer you to a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can tailor a plan to your particular needs. But it’s rare that a doc will discuss what you’re drinking.
Fruit juices and sugary beverages can make your blood sugar and triglyceride levels soar. Alcoholic beverages may cause hypoglycemia and an initial drop in blood sugar, but those numbers will then climb – especially if you’re consuming mixed cocktails. Water is the best beverage for healthy hydration. But it’s good to know that tea, coffee, skim or low-fat milk, and watery fruits and vegetables provide fluid credit, too.
6. Even a little weight loss could have a big impact. “Too often, doctors don’t set reasonable expectations,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, of New York City, owner of NutritionStarringYOU.com. A blanket statement like “Lose weight and go exercise” is not as motivating as “if you lose a modest 5 percent of your body weight you can make a significant impact on the important numbers like blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol/triglycerides,” Harris-Pincus says.
As an example, if you weigh 160 pounds but your ideal weight is 120, even a drop of 8 to 10 pounds could improve your laboratory test results. It could also even decrease or eliminate your need for medication. Setting smaller and more specific goals could make them seem more attainable.
7. Exercise is just as important as a balanced diet in combating metabolic syndrome. “Your doctor is probably not trained about the types of exercises and their related recommended intensities for improving specific parameters of this syndrome,” says Joey Gochnour, RDN, exercise physiologist and owner of Nutrition and Fitness Professional, LLC, in Austin, Texas. Gochnour points out that even moderate aerobic exercise can improve HDL (good) cholesterol levels just as much as intense aerobic exercise. He recommends exercising regularly, preferably at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week to help ward off metabolic syndrome.
According to Gochnour, “Strength training and intense aerobic exercise may improve your blood glucose sensitivity and reduce elevated insulin levels.” Exercise is a key component in boosting metabolism and burning calories, both of which help you keep your weight down.
8. Sitting too much puts you at risk. “It may sound odd,” says Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, author of The Diabetes Counter, “but sitting or sedentary activities such as watching TV, using the computer, sitting at work or sitting while commuting have been identified as risks for metabolic syndrome even when you incorporate modest amounts of regular activity into your day.” A recent study published in the British Medical Journal connected sitting time with a positive risk for diabetes, speculating that for every hour of daily TV viewing, a person’s risk for diabetes increased by more than 3 percent.
9. You should get your fasting insulin level tested. When it comes to laboratory values, numbers like blood glucose and hemoglobin A1C levels are commonly checked. It is less often that doctors order a test for your fasting insulin level, yet this test can help predict your risk of developing prediabetes and metabolic syndrome. Insulin plays a key role in metabolism, and high insulin levels can promote obesity, stimulate hunger, and increase the storage of fat.
“When you eat sugary foods, your blood sugar levels rise and your pancreas releases insulin to move the sugar from your blood into your cells to be used or stored,” explains Chere Bork, MS, RDN, Owner of Savor Your Life Today Seminars and Coaching in Minneapolis-St. Paul. But if your body is continuously exposed to high levels of insulin, Bork says, “The receptor cells become inefficient and resistant to the effects of insulin,” and this leaves blood glucose levels elevated. It is insulin resistance that promotes the high cholesterol, high glucose, and high blood pressure of metabolic syndrome — also known as insulin resistance syndrome.
10. You should keep an up-to-date copy of your laboratory values. Your current healthcare provider may not end up being your future provider, but your current body is yours forever. If you undergo any blood tests or exams, ask for copies of the results so that you can keep them filed away at home. It’s essential that you know your baseline numbers and keep track of the evolution of your health throughout the course of your life.
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