Metabolic syndrome is a bit confusing to many of us, and perhaps the only thing we are clear about it that having metabolic syndrome is a bad thing and has something to do with why weight loss may be so ridiculously hard. Let’s look at metabolic syndrome and weight loss, exactly what metabolic syndrome is, and then explore some of the strategies to get this beast under control.
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, and your body will then store the excess energy as fat and not as glucose. Most health professionals will consider a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome with at least three of the following:
- 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)
A syndrome, by definition, is a description of a phenomenon, not a diagnosis. Metabolic syndrome is a descriptive term for a collection of health conditions that are likely to occur together. Here is a good resource to view.
Having metabolic syndrome puts you at much higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In a study done between 1999 and 2002, around 34% of participants were diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which means that a third or more of American adults meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome.
The best treatment for metabolic syndrome is lifestyle change. 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.
Here are some of the most effective and critical lifestyle changes you can make. Each of these strategies impacts two or more of the health conditions that make up metabolic syndrome.
When you exercise at least 20 minutes a day—at a pace intense enough to increase heart rate—insulin response improves, lean muscle mass increases, blood pressure will usually drop, and blood sugar levels stabilize. That’s a pretty dramatic return on investment!
Some of the most effective ways to get exercise into your day are:
- Walking is one of the best, easiest, and most effective ways to exercise. Begin at a pace and distance that gets you feeling tired but not exhausted and increase both pace and distance as you gain endurance and strength. Get a walking buddy to make it more fun and so that you can encourage each other to be consistent.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator. You could, of course, go to a gym and pay to use a machine that mimics the action of climbing stairs. Or you could do the same thing for free.
- Join an exercise class. The social connection is very important for mental and emotional health. And for most of us, having a group that cares about whether we show up is a wonderful motivational tool to keep going after the novelty wears off.
- Go swimming. Non-competitive swimming burns more calories than running, with much less strain on your joints. Free Calculator.
- Ultimate frisbee and jumping rope. Don’t overlook the “fun” activities. These work more muscle groups, at greater intensity, than many gym activities, can be done at home or with friends, and don’t cost much.
There is no magic diet cure for metabolic syndrome and weight loss. But there are several principles that are effective and will bring improvement of both obesity and insulin resistance and will probably also affect triglyceride levels.
First, Eat Real Food. That sounds too simple; but consider that a lot of the items for sale on grocery store shelves, in convenience stores, and in restaurants are processed food-like-substances that bears very little resemblance to the original food as grown, harvested or slaughtered.
Eating real food means eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lightly cooked, steamed, or baked, with little added salt or fats and lots of spices for flavor. Eating real food means eating baked fish, whole grain bread, 100% beef, delicious salads, organic apples, and real honey.
Eating real food means eating real food instead of highly processed substitutes. Choose fresh and minimally processed where possible and look for five or fewer ingredients on the ingredient list (and 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 clearly improves your body’s ability to respond to normal levels of insulin. Read more about insulin resistance here.
Weight loss is also important for addressing high blood pressure. The larger the body mass, the more pressure it takes to move blood through the circulatory system, so the more a person weighs, the more likely they are to have high blood pressure. Even a ten-pound 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 calorie 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 calorie deficit is not better. If you have a large calorie 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. Obviously, that is not something you want, and it certainly isn’t good for you. Maintain a moderate calorie 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 its not just about the cancer risk.
When you quit smoking, 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.
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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 Multi-Pronged Approach
The good news is, there isn’t just one thing that you can do to treat metabolic syndrome. The lifestyle changes outlined above will make a difference, whether you do one or all. If you are severely overweight, have been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you may need some drug therapy as well.
But even if you need drugs to help manage the health conditions that make up metabolic syndrome, lifestyle changes are still effective. In many cases, people are able to reduce their medications after making lifestyle changes, and sometimes even stop taking them altogether.
For best results, begin with just one of the tips and techniques above, and then add another one every week or so. Unless you are an all-or-nothing type of person, in which case you should go all in!
Whichever way works for you, just get started. Your actions can make a difference. You can take charge of your own health! What are your thoughts on Metabolic Syndrome and Weight Loss? Please comment and don’t forget to share this post 🙂 Be Well!