Metabolic Syndrome and Weight Loss: What You Need to Know
Considering the fact that roughly 1.9 billion adults are overweight, it’s clear that many of us struggle to meet our weight loss goals. Several factors influence an inability to lose weight, and understanding the underlying reasons why it can be challenging is helpful.
Sometimes difficulty losing weight may be due to something called metabolic syndrome.
About one-third of the US population, equally distributed across genders, has metabolic syndrome and the numbers are growing.
If you are struggling with your weight and think you may have issues with metabolism, keep reading. Here's what you need to know about metabolic syndrome and weight loss.
What Is Metabolic Syndrome?
According to the Mayo Clinic, metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These symptoms include increased blood pressure, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
Metabolic syndrome is not a single condition, but a cluster of symptoms signaling that the body’s metabolic systems are not in balance. Over time, the symptoms worsen driving more insulin resistance and systemic inflammation which damages tissues and blood vessels increasing your risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
As we age, the probability of having more than one of the underlying symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome increases. If you have any of these symptoms, that doesn't automatically mean that you have metabolic syndrome.
However, it is a good indicator that you are at greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome or one of these serious diseases the longer the underlying lifestyle factors go unaddressed.
Metabolic syndrome is most closely linked to lifestyle factors we can change, such as eating processed foods, stress, and inactivity/lack of exercise. But environmental factors like air and water quality and chemicals in our environment can also contribute to changes in metabolism which result in weight gain.
Processed foods and diets high in sugar significantly increase the risk of insulin resistance, which is another key driver of metabolic syndrome. When you are insulin resistant you lack metabolic flexibility, meaning your metabolism cannot easily switch between carbohydrates and fats for energy and your cells are not responding properly to the insulin signals. If you lack metabolic flexibility your glucose levels will rise higher and stay high longer than someone who is metabolically flexible. Insulin is a signal to your body to store excess glucose as fat for future energy. However, if you are not metabolically flexible, you are never able to burn that fat and it just continues to build up over time.
Consuming high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a significant factor in the risk of metabolic syndrome. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the consumption of HFCS rose more than 1,000% between 1970 and 1990. The research suggested in 2004 that the epidemic of obesity was likely related to this exponential rise in the consumption of this sugar alone. To learn more about HFCS you may want to listen to this short video by Dr. Jason Fung about fructose metabolism. Table sugar is one half glucose and one half fructose. There are many hidden sources of sugars in processed foods, fructose being the primarily culprit because it is cheap.
In a healthy metabolic system, your digestive tract breaks down your food into its components including glucose. The hormone called insulin that's produced in the pancreas is produced in response to glucose consumption and helps to shuttle glucose into our cells for energy. The digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differs from glucose. Fructose goes directly to the liver, while glucose can be used by all of the cells of the body.
Hepatic metabolism of fructose favors the metabolic production of fat. Fructose is the main driver of something called fatty liver. Unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production.
Leptin is a hormone that signals us to stop eating because we are satisfied. Because insulin and leptin act as key signaling molecules in the regulation of food intake and body weight management, this suggests that dietary fructose may contribute to increased energy intake, storage, and weight gain.
Fructose consumption induces insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, and hypertension in animal models. When you are insulin resistant, your pancreas starts to pump out more insulin to try to get blood sugar into the cells. Cells stop responding to the increased insulin.
This disruption in the balanced signals makes it more difficult for your cells to regulate glucose levels and energy production. When you become insulin resistant your blood sugar rises, increasing inflammation. Numerous studies have confirmed that sugar increases inflammation in the muscles and joints.
Some people are at a greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome than others. Your greatest risk for metabolic syndrome is likely corrected with the amount of HFCS you consume. Foods most likely to contain fructose are:
- Soft drinks
- Salad dressing
- Fast foods
- Breakfast cereals
- Baked goods and bread
Age and ethnicity can contribute to increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Hispanic men and women, for instance, are at highest risk. This Bloomberg story from 2015 talks about junk food companies specifically targeting black and Latino customers and its potential impact on public health.
Increasing weight gain around the middle section is an early indicator that you lack metabolic flexibility and are at greater risk for metabolic syndrome.
The Link Between Metabolic Disorders and Weight Loss
Now that you've got a good idea about what metabolic syndrome is and its potential causes, let's talk about how this metabolic disorder is linked to trouble with weight loss.
Metabolic syndrome and obesity are closely related, and it's not clear in the research which comes first, the syndrome or the excess weight gain. Since these two issues are so closely connected, you can actually address both of them at the same time.
Addressing your metabolic inflexibility to improve your health will help you lose weight and keeping it off will significantly decrease your risk of metabolic syndrome. But weight loss is often difficult to sustain without lifestyle changes because of the factors discussed above regarding HFCS in many foods and the resulting metabolic changes that favor energy conservation, which results in subsequent fat storage.
Metabolic Syndrome Weight Loss Diet
If you're trying to beat metabolic syndrome and trim some weight, intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet are likely your best bets. Both fasting and the ketogenic diet help restore metabolic flexibility by teaching your body to burn rather than store it. The ketogenic diet helps restore healthy insulin response levels, increase fat metabolism and burn stored fat. Intermittent fasting allows the body time to finish the process of digestion and deal with cellular waste enabling improved signaling and better insulin response. If you are interested in learning more about intermittent fasting you may want to read Cynthia Thurlow’s new book Intermittent Fasting Transformation, follow Dr. Mindy Pelz on YouTube, or listen to the Keto Kamp Podcast with Ben Azadi.
However, in order to achieve the benefits of intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet, it requires strict adherence to the dietary changes during the metabolic adjustment phase which can take 2-3 months. Some good resources for how to implement dietary changes to address metabolic syndrome are
- Dr.William Davis’s books Wheat Belly, Undoctored, Super Gut, and his blog
- Ben Azadi’s Keto Flex: The Four Secrets to Reduce Inflammation, Burn Fat and Reboot Your Metabolism
- Dr. Jason Fung’s Complete Guide to Fasting (Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting)
Let's take a look at a few diet changes you can make to help with weight loss and metabolic syndrome.
Learn to Read Labels
The first thing to tackle when it comes to metabolic syndrome is what’s in the food you're already eating. One key step to empowering yourself to make better choices is learning the basics of food labels. Next it’s good to look under the hood and understand that there are more than 50 names for sugar, lots that you may not recognize. You can find 30 of those hidden names here. Food companies trick you with marketing on the front of the package but the real scoop is on the back. Know your ingredients and don’t be fooled by marketing.
What to Cut Out
Eliminating these foods will help you improve your overall gut health and support weight loss.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS, a sweetener made from corn starch commonly found in foods and drinks, is the number one thing to eliminate from your diet to improve your potential for weight loss. Avoid soft drinks, canned fruits, and candy.
It even hides in things like flavored yogurt, crackers, and ketchup. Always check nutrition labels, and aim for whole foods to avoid HFCS.
Refined carbs such as sugary snacks, breakfast cereals, quick oats, sugar-sweetened beverages, rice, and white flour are foods that spike your blood sugar and lead to insulin resistance and weight gain. That's especially true when these foods are low in fiber and other key nutrients.
Vegetable and Seed Oils
Most vegetable oils are seed oils. Oils like soybeans, safflower, sunflower seed, etc. have been shown to be some of the leading causes of heart disease, cancer, and other life-degrading conditions.
Often we don’t realize these oils are even in the foods we are eating because we don’t read the labels. These oils are in most packaged breads, salad dressings, and low-cost processed foods.
Deli meats, hot dogs, and other cured meats are foods to get out of your diet. These foods are high in sodium, nitrates, and fat, which can lead to weight gain.
Most Americans eat far too many packaged food items and fast food meals. Fast food and processed foods are one of the biggest contributors to metabolic syndrome. These foods include refined carbs, HFCS, tons of sodium, preservatives, and emulsifiers, and high levels of seed oils.
What to Include
Now that you know some foods to avoid, let's talk about what you should eat. Intermittent fasting, the Mediterranean diet and the Keto diet are eating approaches that you might want to try to address metabolic syndrome.
Aim for meals that are rich in seafood, pasture-raised meats, green veggies, and healthy oils like olive oil. These diets are linked to a healthier weight and a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Here are a few healthy foods that you may want to try incorporating into your diet to help with weight and metabolic syndrome.
One of the healthiest ways to shed some pounds and put metabolic syndrome behind you is to eat more vegetables. Eating a variety of non-starchy vegetables also increases the diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut, which improves digestion.
Reduce your intake of starchy vegetables like white potatoes and increase the colors of the rainbow in your diet. Colorful vegetables are high in antioxidants.
A few veggies that are great for gut health include:
- Swiss Chard
- Sweet potatoes
- Bok Choy
Choose organic whenever possible, to avoid herbicide and pesticide residues, which can harm your microbiome.
Fruits are something to consider with caution if you have metabolic syndrome as fruits contain fructose. While the fructose in fruits is not the same as HFCS, eating too much fruit can also increase your risk of insulin resistance because of the sugar content.
When consuming fruits, always consume the whole fruit with fiber and not fruit juice. While it’s true that fruits have sugar, they are also high in fiber. That means that you will digest the sugars more slowly.
Fruits should be consumed in their natural seasons rather than year-round. For example, consume fresh apples in the fall when they are fresh, not in the spring when they have been sitting in cold storage all winter losing nutrients. A few fruits you can try eating include:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While it might seem counterintuitive to consume fats when you're trying to lose weight, our cells needs fats for healthy cell membranes. The consumption of healthy fats actually resets metabolism and signals the body that we do not need to store fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol. A few foods that are good sources of omega 3 fatty acids include:
- Flax seeds
Best Exercise for Metabolic Syndrome
Diet isn't the only way to lose weight if you have metabolic syndrome. It's also important to get some exercise and keep active. Low levels of physical activity are related to most of the issues in metabolic syndrome.
Weight and Resistance Training
The best exercise to support weight loss is actually resistance and weight training. This type of exercise improves your resting metabolic rate and helps reduce weight.
Cardiovascular exercise actually burns carbohydrates and may make it harder to lose weight. Regular daily walking is a great exercise that can help reduce stress and support cardiovascular health. Some experts suggest you should try to get about 150 minutes of physical exercise each week.
If you struggle to set aside big chunks of time, you can always break the exercise up into 10-minute sessions. That's a great way to get a whole workout in even if you don't have hours of time available to hit the gym.
Moderate exercises like walking are a great way for you to get the physical activities that you need. This type of activity raises your heart rate to somewhere between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate. Evidence now suggests that you burn more fat by doing moderate level (Zone 2) exercise than high intensity (Zone 3-4) exercise.
With moderate exercise, you are breathing harder than you normally would, but you can still speak with full sentences. Some good examples of moderate exercise include:
- Doubles tennis
- Ballroom dancing
- Brisk walks
- Water aerobics
Vigorous Exercises that Raise Your Heart Rate
Alternatively, you can try vigorous exercise routines. These exercises require you to use between 70% and 85% of your maximum heart rate and make it hard for you to speak.
A few good examples of vigorous exercises include:
- Singles tennis
- Bicycling or indoor spin classes
- Aerobic dance
Beat Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome can be a tough issue to tackle, but with this guide to making lifestyle changes, you can put the struggles behind you. By focusing on weight loss and a healthy diet, you'll improve your microbiome and overall metabolic health.
Are you looking for more ways to support your microbiome? Contact our team today to learn more about how you can own your health and feel your best.
Martha Carlin, is a Citizen Scientist, systems thinker, wife of Parkinson’s warrior, John Carlin, and founder of The BioCollective, a microbiome company expanding the reach of science. Since John’s diagnosis in 2002, Martha began learning the science of agriculture, nutrition, environment, infectious disease, Parkinson’s pathology and much more. In 2014, when the first research was published showing a connection between the gut bacteria and the two phenotypes of Parkinson’s, Martha quit her former career as a business turnaround expert and founded The BioCollective to accelerate the discovery of the impact of gut health on all human health, including Parkinson’s. Martha was a speaker at the White House 2016 Microbiome Initiative launch, challenging the scientific community to “think in a broader context”. Her systems thinking background and experience has led to collaborations across the scientific spectrum from neuroscience to engineering to infectious disease. She is a respected out of the box problem solver in the microbiome field and brings a unique perspective to helping others understand the connections from the soil to the food to our guts and our brains.