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We are facing a pandemic of metabolic syndrome in the West, where more than a third of adults now has the condition and is in dire need of the undisputed first-line treatment: adherence to a metabolic syndrome diet and lifestyle changes. Without diet and lifestyle changes, reversal of metabolic syndrome is virtually impossible, and those with the condition remain at extremely heightened risk for heart disease, cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, and more.
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What Is Metabolic Syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of risk factors that greatly multiply your chance for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. It is diagnosed when you have three or more of the following conditions:
- Abdominal obesity (waist circumference 40-inches or greater (men) or 35 inches or greater (women)
- Triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL or greater
- HDL cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women
- Systolic blood pressure (top number) of 130 mmHg or greater, or diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 85 mmHg or greater
- Fasting glucose of 100 mg/dL or greater
- Insulin resistance or glucose intolerance (the body can’t properly use insulin or blood sugar)
Dangerous Consequences of Metabolic Syndrome
When you have these risk factors together, your chances for cardiovascular problems are greater than if you have any one factor presenting alone. For example, having high blood pressure alone is serious, but high blood pressure along with high blood sugar levels and abdominal obesity, a combination characteristic of metabolic syndrome, means there is a much greater chance of cardiovascular problems and diabetes because of the combination of risk factors.
The underlying causes of metabolic syndrome are poor diet, being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, and genetic factors. Switching to a healthier diet, losing weight, and getting more exercise are the cornerstone treatments. While virtually any healthy diet that helps a person lose weight can improve some features of the metabolic syndrome, researchers are working frantically to sort out which diet works best.
The Best Metabolic Syndrome Diet
For a number of years, investigators have known that adherence to an overall Mediterranean-style food pattern significantly reduces the prevalence of metabolic syndrome.
They also have known that a low-glycemic load diet, which minimizes sharp increases in blood sugar, works extremely well for treating blood sugar and insulin problems.
Combining the two—Mediterranean-style and low glycemic load—therefore makes perfect sense for the treatment of metabolic syndrome.
What Constitutes a Mediterranean-Style Diet?
The Mediterranean-style part of the metabolic syndrome diet is based on the dietary habits of people living in different regions of the Mediterranean basin. It consists of minimally processed foods, including vegetables, fruits, unrefined grains, fish, vegetable proteins from legumes, vegetable fats mainly from olive oil, moderate consumption of red wine (with meals), and more rarely poultry. Conversely, fast food, red meat, processed meat products, and full-fat dairy products are rarely consumed as part of traditional Mediterranean diets.
Eliminating added sugars and refined grains while at the same time limiting alcohol, dried fruits and fruit juices, whole grains, and starchy vegetables (like potatoes) lowers the glycemic load of Mediterranean-style diets.
The glycemic load is a well-known, effective tool in controlling blood sugar and insulin levels. A high-glycemic-load diet causes rapid rises in blood glucose and insulin levels. Over time, this leads to increased insulin resistance, a hallmark of metabolic syndrome. On the other hand, a low-glycemic-load diet keeps blood sugar and insulin levels lower and more stable and helps to reverse insulin resistance.
Can a Combo Diet Reduce Other Metabolic Syndrome Components?
So far, studies that have examined the low-glycemic-load/Mediterranean-style diet show that it positively affects many aspects of the metabolic syndrome. Besides reducing the prevalence of metabolic syndrome and lowering the risk for type 2 diabetes by about 20 percent, the Mediterranean-style low glycemic load diet has been shown in studies to lead to decreases in:
- Weight, body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, and waist circumference
- Blood pressure
- Total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, cholesterol/HDL ratio, and oxidized LDL
- Fasting blood sugar and average blood sugar (hemoglobin A1C)
- Fasting insulin
- Food cravings
Researchers believe these benefits are not just through weight control but also through other characteristics of the diet, such as its high phytonutrient content, which has anti-inflammatory and other desirable effects; the use of extra virgin olive oil, which leads to a high ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fatty acids; and its ability to improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin.
How to Get Started
Adopting a Mediterranean-style/low-glycemic-load diet isn’t difficult once you learn more about these two concepts. While the initial learning process certainly takes some research, patience, and planning, once you get the hang of it, the diet is relatively simple and easy to follow. You can use our “Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan” and “Glycemic Index Food List” to get started.
If you keep your metabolic syndrome diet focused on fruits and vegetables, beans, olive oil, fish, and limited whole grains and poultry, you’ll quickly start experiencing the benefits of this amazing way to eat.
This article originally appeared in 2013 and is regularly updated.