Your doctor may never use the term metabolic syndrome, but you can still have this dangerous group of health problems.
Here’s a hint: Do you have three or more of these?
- high blood sugar
- high blood pressure
- High triglycerides (a fat in the blood)
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol
- A large waist (40+ inches for men; 35+ for women measured at the belly button)
All of these symptoms can be troublesome on their own, but having three or more puts you at much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other serious health complications, including cancer. In fact, studies show that 90-95% of all cancer cases can be attributed to lifestyle (diet, smoking) and environment, while only 5-10% are related to genetic causes.
Metabolic syndrome is also known by the names syndrome X and insulin resistance. When people hear the diagnosis, it is often a wake-up call.
“They are serious about their diet because they are motivated not to take medication,” Justine Chan, MHSc, RDa certified diabetes educator and owner of YourDiabetesDietitian.com, says Eat this, not that!
That’s a good thing, because dietary changes can have a significant impact on halting and even reversing many of those defining factors of metabolic syndrome.
What is the best diet for metabolic syndrome?
It may not surprise you to learn that the best nutritional plan for overcoming metabolic syndrome is the Mediterranean diet when you consider that research has linked that specific style of eating to improvement in each of the five disorders that make up metabolic syndrome.
One of these studies published in the journal Obesity demonstrated that improving diet by following a Mediterranean-style diet resulted in significantly less accumulation of visceral fat in the abdomen over six years. Visceral fat is the type of fat that surrounds your organs and releases inflammatory chemicals that increase your risk of developing metabolic syndrome and related diseases.
A more recent study in Frontiers in Nutrition suggested that people who followed a Mediterranean-style diet did not develop metabolic syndrome even though they remained obese. In the study of 2,115 obese women, the researchers measured abdominal visceral fat, subcutaneous fat, blood biomarkers, and adherence to the Mediterranean diet. They found that following this style of eating regularly was correlated with better metabolic health in postmenopausal women compared with overweight women not following the diet.
Why a Mediterranean diet is easier to follow
Chan says his patients like the Mediterranean diet because “it’s not restrictive.” Sure, processed foods are omitted and red meat is minimized, but it’s a diet of plenty, not sacrifice.
“The Mediterranean diet focuses on what you can eat more of, not less,” says Chan. “It’s more of a pattern of eating versus a traditional diet that restricts this food or that food; the message is positive.
As a refresher, here’s a menu of dietary changes for healthier eating, Mediterranean-style:
Fill most of your plate with plants
“The key to healthy eating is to focus on plant-based foods,” says Chan. “Vegetables and fruits are full of unique anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that affect metabolic health. Dietary fiber in plant foods lowers blood sugar levels and lowers cholesterol.”
Swap the pork and beef for beans
To minimize meat, try to reduce your meat meals to three or four times a week instead of seven. Eventually, you may find yourself eating meat only once or twice a week, if at all.
To satisfy your hunger and maintain your intake of muscle-repairing protein, make beans and legumes the centerpiece of your meals. A meta-analysis of 36 studies in Circulation in 2019 found that substituting high-quality plant protein, such as beans, for red meat improved levels of cholesterol and other fats in the blood.
Avoid refined grains
Refined grains, from white rice to flour made into cakes, cookies, bagels, and breads, are lacking in fiber, the key nutrient that slows digestion, keeps you feeling full, and lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Some of the best are barley, oats, faro, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat.
Choose healthy fats like olive oil
Olive oil is all fat, but it is made up mostly of monounsaturated fats, the kind that are heart-healthy. Choose extra virgin olive oil when you can, since EVOO contains the highest amount of phenolic compounds.
“Phenolic compounds act as antioxidants and prevent cell damage, fighting diseases such as heart disease and cancer,” says Chan.
Also, some studies show that eating monounsaturated fat along with a healthy diet rich in plant foods may reduce insulin resistance better than low-fat or high-protein diets.
A 2022 study in Frontiers in Endocrinology compared people who ate their normal diet with the addition of around 1.7 ounces of extra virgin olive oil per day to a group consuming that amount of EVOO with a healthy traditional Brazilian diet based on beans and rice, vegetables, lean meats and fruits, many of the same foods found in a Mediterranean-style diet. Participants in both groups were obese with type 2 diabetes. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that only the group that followed the healthy Brazilian diet combined with olive oil decreased fasting insulin levels and markers of inflammation while reducing the body mass index and weight.
There is one more benefit to olive oil and the wide variety of foods in the Mediterranean diet: a wealth of delicious flavors. Find your favorites by trying these 15 Best Mediterranean Diet Recipes.
What about dairy?
Milk is not traditionally part of the Mediterranean-style diet, but small amounts of cheese and Greek yogurt are fine. Just avoid those highly processed yogurts that contain added sugars. Choose plain Greek yogurt, which is also high in protein, and add your own fruit or a drizzle of honey to sweeten.
Eat fish at least twice a week.
Those long-lived people near the Mediterranean Sea eat fish, not a ton, but regularly enough. However, you can do the same even if you don’t live near the ocean. You are close enough to Costco, Trader Joe’s or your local fish store. Choose oily fish like sardines, salmon, tuna, and mackerel, which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. More fish in your diet will not only help fight metabolic syndrome, but those omega-3s will also protect your brain.