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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Metabolic Syndrome: You May Have It and Not Know It
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Curtiss Hunt

Metabolic Syndrome--what a sinister sounding name for a medical condition! Unfortunately, this particular medical problem lives up to its name and you and I have a significant chance of coming down with it. Scientists estimate that approximately 47 million Americans (22%) now have Metabolic Syndrome. For persons 60-69 years of age, the prevalence rises to 42%. Please consult with your physician to determine your personal medical status. Metabolic Syndrome (also called Syndrome X) is defined as the simultaneous presence of 3 of the following 5 risk factors:

  • Abdominal obesity: waist circumference greater than 40 inches in men; 35 inches in women.
  • Elevated blood pressure: greater than 130/85 mmHg.
  • Decreased HDL (the "good") cholesterol: less than 40 mg/dL in men; less than 50 mg/dL in women.
  • Elevated triglycerides: greater than 150 mg/dL.
  • Elevated fasting glucose: greater than 110 mg/dL.
This condition earns its title as a "Syndrome" because the cause of the problem is unknown. Scientists have already identified several factors that increase susceptibility to the condition:
  • Physical inactivity
  • High-fat diets
  • Central adiposity
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Aging
  • Genetics
  • Low birth weight
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (in women)

Some of these predisposing factors, like aging and genetic makeup, are beyond our control. However, we have control over several factors including physical inactivity and consumption of high-fat diets that lead to obesity. Even modest overeating causes fat cells to enlarge and starts the development of insulin resistance, the strange inability of the body to recognize the insulin that it produces. With continued overfeeding, insulin resistance (a pre-diabetic state) becomes worse and fat cells enlarge further and start sending out signals that stimulate inflammation and blood clotting. Thus, the Metabolic Syndrome, through its association with insulin resistance, inflammation, and abnormal blood clotting, ends up being an important component in the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Mainstay therapy for Metabolic Syndrome includes diet and weight loss, exercise, and medical treatment with medications that increase the body's sensitivity to insulin. Obviously, a cheap place to start is getting regular aerobic exercise. But this is no easy task because our lifestyles are typically sedentary. I spend 8 hours a day working at a desk. For exercise, I use the computer printer that is 300 feet from my desk instead of the one 15 feet away, never use the elevator, park my vehicle at the far end of the parking lot, shovel my sidewalks by hand in the winter, and push a lawnmower in the summer. Even so, this is not enough regular exercise and there will be a medical price to pay at some point if I do not avail myself of additional forms of exercise. We must act now individually to stop and reverse the 61% increase in obesity that occurred during the last decade: obesity now kills approximately 300,000 Americans per year, with a estimated expense of $117 billion each year.

Eating correctly is another logical yet challenging approach to warding off the Syndrome. The ideal diet for susceptible patients is one low in simple carbohydrates, low in saturated fat, and high in fiber. A recent study also found that adults with Metabolic Syndrome consume fewer fruits and vegetables. This finding is of particular interest to scientists at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. They discovered that animals fed tiny amounts of boron didn't need as much insulin in their blood to maintain blood glucose levels. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are the major sources of boron in the human diet. As with all other minerals, boron is toxic when fed in excessive amounts.

To summarize, let's consider the results of a recent research study conducted by the National Institutes of Health that demonstrated the power of lifestyle management. Patients who had an elevated blood glucose (but not yet diabetes) received instructions during the study on how to modify their lifestyle with the goals of reducing body weight by at least 7% and getting at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week. Others in the study continued with their usual lifestyle habits. After a nearly 3-year follow-up, the lifestyle management program decreased the incidence of developing diabetes by 58%. I can live with that.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006