What is Metabolic Syndrome?

Did you know that weight is a common concern for people with metabolic syndrome and that nutrition has an important role to play? We’re not talking about how to boost your metabolism to lose weight in this article. But if weight is your concern, you’re still gonna want to keep reading!

Metabolic syndrome isn’t as commonly heard of as heart diseases, prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. But if nothing is done about it, it can turn into these conditions. We can think of it as the problem under all those other conditions. 

About 1 in 5 Canadians have the risk factors to be diagnosed. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of it. 

On a regular day I hear from people that they don’t really go to their doctor’s until they either have to, for employment reasons perhaps, or until they feel like they need something checked up on. As someone in your 40’s or 50’s, you would usually start talking with your doctor about screening tests for some of these conditions … if you’re actually going to your doctor on a regular basis of course. 

Now with COVID-19, there’s less access to in-office doctor’s visits and labs. People want to stick close to home unless it’s an emergency, meaning the need to know how to take care of your own health is greater than ever. 

With all the the 5 risk factors of metabolic syndrome relating to nutrition, your diet is one clear place to started – so you can take control of your health before it feels that your health controls your life!



About metabolic syndrome / syndrome X

What is metabolic syndrome

You can think of metabolic syndrome as your body’s call for help. The warning lights going off. Red alert.

Also known as MetS, Syndrome X or insulin resistance syndrome, metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems that are common for both heart disease and diabetes. When these health problems are combined (and not taken care of), they raise your chance of having a stroke, heart attack or being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. And maybe meaning a slippery slope toward further health problems.

As a syndrome, this is not exactly a disease on it’s own with an exact cause and treatment. Instead, its a cluster of specific signs that your metabolic system is not working well. 

So what is your metabolic system? In short, it’s the many moving parts that turn what we eat into fuel or building blocks for our body to keep doing what it does. One part of this is turning food into energy (or storing it for later), which can play a part in your weight. While other parts include creating new cells and tissues for our body or removing the wastes / extras our body doesn’t need. 

One main theme of metabolic syndrome though is insulin resistance. Since each of the symptoms can be linked to insulin resistance, the clustering of abnormalities are a signal that you could be on your way toward its damaging effects (more about this in a bit). 


What are the symptoms of metabolic syndrome?

The road toward metabolic syndrome might include being told by your doctor that you have obesity … high blood pressure … dyslipidemia or that your blood sugar levels are increasing. It could be in no particular order, might happen over the year or maybe you are diagnosed with multiple things at once. 

You may not feel any specific symptoms if you have, or are developing, metabolic syndrome. The answer will be in your bloodwork … another reason to be sure to have regular medical check-ups, monitor your risks and get screened.

For example, as we know, high blood pressure often goes unnoticed until you visit your doctor for a check-up! 


Diagnosis of metabolic syndrome

A diagnosis can be made if you have 3 or more of the following 5 risk factors:

Waist circumference (weight carried around your middle) – 102cm/ 40” or more for men; 88cm/ 35” or more for women. Number can vary with ethnic background.

High triglycerides or medication for – 1.7 mmol/L or more

Low HDL-cholesterol or medication for – less than 1.0 mmol/L for males; less than 1.3 mmol/L for females

High fasting blood glucose or medication for – 5.6 mmol/L or higher. If your fasting blood sugars or A1c labs are higher, you may need to have further blood sugar testing to find out if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes. 

High blood pressure or medication for – 135/80 mm Hg

It’s also important to recognize that having less than 3 of these risk factors can still be a concern. And certainly a reason to take control of your health and weight before more health problems develop!



What causes metabolic syndrome?

At this point, there’s no one specific reason that metabolic syndrome starts. 

But since metabolic syndrome is actually a cluster of different (yet related) health problems, we can look at how those health problems may have come about.

Common themes include overeating and moving our bodies less. When this leads to weight gain, especially around your waist, your body can have a harder time using insulin, also known as insulin resistance. You might then see that your blood sugar levels raise, which if not taken care of, can lead to type 2 diabetes over time. 

These things can raise your chance of developing metabolic syndrome:

  • Insulin resistance 
  • Having had diabetes in pregnancy (gestational diabetes)
  • Family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Genetics – people with African, Hispanic, First Nations, Asian, and Pacific Islander backgrounds are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes and therefore also metabolic syndrome
  • Age – chances go up with getting older however rates are different between women and men of different age ranges
  • Being a smoker or a past smoker
  • Carrying extra weight around your waist
  • Inactivity
  • Having a hormone disorder such as PCOS (Polycystic ovarian syndrome)



Is metabolic syndrome the same as prediabetes?

The short answer is no, they are not the same condition. However one might ask which came first, the chicken or the egg? 

It seems that metabolic syndrome is the problem at the bottom of it all. The processes that keep our body functioning are not working as they used to, leading to insulin resistance developing in the body. 

Insulin is a hormone that the pancreas puts into our blood to help move the sugars from food into our muscles to be used as fuel. When insulin isn’t working as it should be, the sugar hangs around in our blood and causes a number of problems. When the amount of sugar in our blood reaches a certain point, this can be diagnosed as either prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. 

It is certainly a tangled web however between prediabetes and metabolic syndrome as they share many of the same abnormal labs and may develop beside each other. For example, insulin resistance is a hallmark of both. And it’s linked with hardening of the arteries (leading to high blood pressure and stroke), extra weight in the midsection and changed cholesterol levels. 

As the diabetes care guidelines say though, the diagnosed diseases of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes may be the symptom of a larger disorder underneath it all, including metabolic syndrome.

Having said that, it’s possible to have metabolic syndrome without prediabetes (and vice versa) … though they do often develop together. 

And because both of these conditions have a big role to play in developing heart disease, fatty liver and the progression toward type 2 diabetes, a diagnosis is really just an opportunity to get it under control at the earliest stage possible. For some doctors, metabolic syndrome is prediction about your chance of having type 2 diabetes in the future.  



Weight and metabolic syndrome

When we’re talking about weight, the number on the scale might not give you the whole picture! There are many factors that lead to our weight, including genetics, muscle mass, age, life stage, etc … and where your weight sits on your body. With metabolic syndrome, it’s this weight around your midsection that’s the problem. You know, that spare tire.

Science tells us that being overweight can mean developing other health conditions. A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome though appears to be more strongly linked with future diseases than just weight alone. Another reason that weight is often just one number on the scale.

Your doctor might measure your waist to find out if the weight you carry around your middle is a concern. Another way is to look at your body’s shape. Are you are rounder in the middle, like an apple, with more of your weight above your waist? Or are you shaped more like a pear with your weight lower on your body, below your waist. If you’d call yourself an apple, you’re at higher risk of metabolic syndrome. 

Weight and waist circumference also relate to age. When we look at the numbers of Canadians who have metabolic syndrome, we see that rates in men rise steadily after the age of 40, likely due to men’s weight increasing once they’re over 45. For women, there are steady increases of metabolic syndrome and overweight until the age of 65, but level off after that. 



Can I reverse metabolic syndrome?

Your overall risk level will guide how you choose to manage metabolic syndrome as well as how intensely. Lifestyle changes are usually the first step and include adjusting your eating habits, weight loss (10% in 1 year), moving your body more and stopping smoking. 

Some people can have a reversal of metabolic syndrome with different treatment options including intensive lifestyle habit changes, medications or bariatric surgery,.




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Is there a metabolic syndrome diet?

While there is no specific diet to lower your chance of developing metabolic syndrome, there are a couple of eating patterns that can help you take control of the risk factors.

Dietary changes that will help improve heart health (ie blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure), waist circumference and blood sugar levels can protect you from being diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. 

The general dietary pattern for metabolic syndrome is along the lines of how you’d eat for heart health or controlling your diabetes – more fruits and veggies, plant-based proteins, low glycemic whole grains, fish and heart-friendly fats.

For some people this looks like a Mediterranean diet, others might focus on the DASH diet, while others still will take a different approach. Or your choice of diet could depend on the risk factors you’re working on specifically. For example if it’s your blood sugar levels that you’re most concerned with, you may choose to eat low glycemic foods. You might be interested to read more articles about eating patterns, such as What is the best diet for Heart Health and Are Beans really that Good for you?

At the end of the day, whichever style of eating you choose needs to be something sustainable. This may even mean combining different diets so it’ll be a plan you canl stick with for the long-run. Not sure where to start? Getting the guidance of a dietitian might help!



It’s time to take your health into your own hands

Whether you’re concerned about metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, diabetes or heart concerns … there are a number of ways you can work on your eating and activity levels that will be effective to improve your labs, reduce your risks and avoid further health problems.

As you begin your journey to preventing health problems, think about what might help you the most. Do you think you need information you can trust? Are you looking for guidance in your personal situation (because you can ask Dr. Google any question possible … except how to manage your combination of health concerns & preferences!). Or have you tried dieting before and really just need accountability to stick with your plan? 

By understanding what you need, what’s keeping you stuck and what’s getting in your way of succeeding, you’ll be better able to find the solution and results you’re looking for.

Metabolic syndrome is something that can be stopped in its tracks. Your health doesn’t have to spiral out of your control. It’s time to take your health into your own hands. 




What is Metabolic Syndrome?
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