Changing Your Diet for Better Health

Metabolic syndrome can be effectively treated with changes to your diet

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) High blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, and extra weight all have one thing in common - they can raise a person's risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. As it turns out, there is something else they have in common - they can be improved with diet.

A recent review found that metabolic syndrome - a group of conditions that raises a person's risk for heart disease and diabetes - could be treated through dietary changes such as calorie and carbohydrate restrictions.

"Eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight."

This study was led by Maria Luz Fernandez, PhD, in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Connecticut. The research team reviewed and highlighted dietary strategies that can be used to treat metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors - high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels - that increase a person's risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Four strategies were highlighted to treat metabolic syndrome which included:

  • Restricting calories
  • Focusing on macronutrient composition
  • Eating functional foods and nutrients
  • Choosing healthy dietary and lifestyle regimens

Restricting calories was reported as an effective tool for improving metabolic syndrome typically achieved by reducing fat intake. The researchers reported that calorie restriction has been shown to improve blood pressure, insulin function, body composition and metabolism.

While calorie restriction is an important part of treating metabolic syndrome, the researchers found that it is also important to pay attention to where the calories are coming from.

In their review, they found that, for obese subjects who consumed equivalent calorie diets but different types of grain (whole grains vs. refined grains), there was a greater decrease in waist size and a 38 percent decrease in C-reactive protein. C-reactive protein is a protein that is produced in the liver which serves as a marker for risk of heart disease (higher levels indicate a greater risk).

Focusing on macronutrient composition was identified as the second strategy for treating metabolic syndrome. Macronutrients are nutrients that our bodies need in large amounts to function properly. These include carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Researchers found that restricting carbohydrates has been shown to improve all conditions of metabolic syndrome. Specifically, diets where 10-35 percent of calories came from carbohydrate sources were shown to improve the associated conditions. Fat restriction was found to be effective in improving the conditions of metabolic syndrome, but it was not as effective as carbohydrate restriction. Increased protein intake was found to be helpful in regulating insulin function and cholesterol levels, as well as improving body composition.

The third strategy identified was to eat more functional foods. Functional foods are foods that provide additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote good health. Alcohol in moderation, antioxidants, fiber, dairy and probiotics (bacteria that aid with digestion) were listed as functional food products that could be consumed to help improve the conditions of metabolic syndrome. Eating more fiber and probiotics were found to reduce waist size, while dairy was found to improve insulin function.

The final strategy identified was to choose healthy dietary and lifestyle regimens. The Mediterranean diet (lots of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats from nuts and fish) was found to significantly reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. The researchers also found that meal timing and calorie count at meals had an impact on metabolic syndrome. Higher calorie meals earlier in the day were found to be linked to a lower chance of metabolic syndrome.

Thirty-four percent of US adults have been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which can lead to significant healthcare costs. Consequently, it is critical to find effective ways to treat metabolic syndrome. The study authors concluded that, by making the dietary and lifestyle changes listed above, people can effectively treat metabolic syndrome.

"Astute researchers were motivated to look beyond the typical caloric restriction strategy for reversing metabolic syndrome, noting - as many clinicians have reported after counseling patients for years - 'energy-restricted diets can be more difficult to follow… compared to diets… emphasizing carbohydrate restriction or Mediterranean style food choices.' If two diets are equally effective in the short term, but one is more sustainable: that diet is a wiser first choice when counseling patients," Deborah Gordon, MD, a nutrition and preventive medicine expert, told dailyRx News.

"Within this review, they used only moderately restrictive low carb diets, and found them to be equal in most and superior in some parameters, notably the observed increase in HDL-C ('good' cholesterol) and decrease in liver triglycerides, found in those on lower carb diets," Dr. Gordon explained.

"The review specifically addressed many of the controversial findings regarding the effects of foods such as saturated fats, essential fatty acid supplementation, and alcohol intake. I will continue to recommend a low carbohydrate program to my own patients with metabolic syndrome, and recommend this article to any physician interested in a concentrated and specific exploration of nutritional choices and effects that far surpasses the entire nutritional curriculum in many medical schools," said Dr. Gordon. 

This study was published on August 13 in Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders.

The study authors reported no competing interests. 

Review Date: 
October 1, 2013
Last Updated:
October 7, 2013