Metabolic syndrome is not a specific disease but a serious condition that increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It is a combination of five risk factors:
• Increased blood pressure (greater than 130/85 mmHg)
• High blood sugar levels (insulin resistance; prediabetes)
• Excess fat around the waist (over 35 inches for women and over 40 inches for men)
• High triglyceride levels
• Low levels of good cholesterol, or HDL
To be diagnosed you would need to have a least three of these factors. A person with metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke and five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than someone without it.
“According to the American Heart Association, 47 million Americans have it. That’s almost a staggering one out of every six people.” - from a story published on WebMD on Jan. 5.
So what is the cause of this epidemic and how can we prevent, or at least reduce, the impact?
The cause is lifestyle. Our bodies were not designed to be sedentary and constantly fed. We have lost our metabolic flexibility, which is the ability to switch from one fuel source to the next; from fats to carbs and carbs to fat.
Environmental fluctuation forced humans to be metabolically flexible in order to survive; we had to adapt to climate, seasonal and vegetation conditions. We had to adapt to a wide range of different food sources, constant unpredictability of supply, and frequent foraging under fasting conditions.
Being metabolically flexible meant that our bodies could “pull” energy from alternative internal sources (glucose and ketone bodies from the liver, free fatty acids from adipose tissue and lactate from skeletal muscle). Today we are constantly being fed so we are “pushing” energy in to our body. Our capability to store fat, which once kept us alive, is now killing us. Since evolution is a slow-acting process, we have not yet adapted to our sedentary lifestyle and abundant-yet-nutrient depleted and chemically processed, food supply.
The good news is we control our lifestyle. Here are some ways you can not only reduce your risk but actually reverse the condition:
Exercise – Consistently exercise five times a week for 30-60 minutes (this can happen in increments throughout your day). Train at different intensities, whether that is within the week or within the training session. We have three different energy systems and each one utilizes different pathways and/or macronutrients for energy production. This will keep your body “practicing” producing energy in different ways.
Strength Train – Research has shown that rates of metabolic syndrome were lower among those who lifted weights (24.6%) compared to those who did not (37.3%) - Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2012.
Quit Sitting so Much – Studies show that even regular exercise may not be enough to overcome increasing your risk of mortality or coronary problems. More specifically, sitting four or more hours in front of any screen increases risk of dying early from any cause by 48% and makes it 125% more likely to experience coronary issues. Exercisers weren’t exempt from these findings - Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2011.. Get up and move around throughout the day and limit unnecessary screen time.
Nutrition – There is no perfect diet but eating fewer calories, managing your portions, and eating mostly whole foods; fresh fruits and veggies, lean proteins, whole grains and essential fats, and minimally processed foods is important. Limiting to processed foods (this includes eating out) to one to two times a week (some would think that is in excess) will have a significant impact.
Try Intermittent Fasting and/or Restricting Carbohydrate Intake – Teach your body to be more nutrient flexible; make it use fat instead of the constant supply of carbohydrates. You might start with just calorie cycling (varying your caloric intake and timing on different days), carb cycling (varying your carbohydrate intake and timing on various days), or a combination of both.
Reduce Stress – Meditate, get a massage, practice yoga, take a walk, read a good book, practice gratitude, remove yourself from stressful environments, start saying “no,” have a nighttime routine that relaxes you.
Lose Weight – If you are overweight, your health can improve in a big way by losing just 5–10% of your current body weight.
Make a Plan and Start Small – The system I use with my clients is one year long and addresses all of these areas but in a very slow, methodical and progressive process. It took us about 150 years to get to this state, it’s going to take some time to get out. The important thing is to start to do something and do it consistently. Once that behavior is established you pick another small thing to develop. Choose things that you see have the most value. For instance, if you substituted some of your screen time with walking, stretching, making some healthy food in your kitchen you would lose weight, that would make you feel better about yourself and reduce your stress which would in turn reinforce positive health behaviors.
Unlike evolution, this is a fast-acting affliction; young smokers don’t have lung cancer yet, young alcoholics don’t have liver damage yet, but young people do have metabolic syndrome. Obese and overweight children show the highest prevalence for metabolic syndrome at around 20%, but just as there are overweight or obese children who seem to present a normal metabolic risk profile, there are also normal weight children who are developing an unfavorable metabolic profile. Metabolic syndrome in young children: definitions and results of the IDEFICS study. Retrieved from The International Journal of Obesity, January 6, 2018.
There are five stages of behavior change: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action and Maintenance. If you are responsible for any young person, or have an influence on their eating and activity, the previous paragraph should have moved you from precontemplation (don’t really see the value of the new/different behavior) right into action, or at least preparation (deciding or talking to someone about where to start).