Stacey Colino

Sure, you've heard of metabolic syndrome, but do you know what it is? More important, could you have it? A new study shows that Americans' risk of developing metabolic syndrome is rising -- and the consequences can be deadly.

When researchers at North Dakota State University recently reviewed health surveys conducted between 1999 and 2006, they found that 34 percent of adults in the U.S. -- or 1 in 3 Americans -- had metabolic syndrome. This is an increase from the 29 percent found in similar surveys conducted between 1988 and 1994. What's more, the most significant increases were among women, particularly women between the ages of 20 and 39.

"If you have the metabolic syndrome, your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is two to four times higher than someone who doesn't have the syndrome, and your risk of developing heart disease is two to three times higher," says Dr. Robert Tanenberg, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at The Brody School of Medicine and director of the Diabetes and Obesity Institute at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. You are also at increased risk for heart failure, fatty liver disease and stroke.

What's Metabolic Syndrome?

Rather than being a discrete condition, metabolic syndrome is actually a constellation of risk factors. To have the syndrome, you must have three of the following criteria:

- Excess abdominal fat (waist circumference of 35 inches or more for women, 40 inches or more for men)

- Elevated blood pressure (130/85 or higher) or known hypertension

- Elevated fasting blood sugar level (100 mg/dL or higher) or known Type 2 diabetes

- Low HDL cholesterol (under 50 mg/dL for women or under 40 mg/dL for men)

- High triglyceride levels (150 mg/dL or higher)

How to Protect Yourself

To lower your metabolic syndrome risk, it's important to reach or maintain a healthy weight, says Tanenberg. "Body fat, especially in the gut, is metabolically active: It makes hormones that cause harmful effects in your body."

To slim down and improve all these risk factors:

Stick with a healthy, balanced diet.

Eliminate simple carbohydrates and sugary foods; consume lots of fiber, water, fruits and vegetables; and have small servings of whole grains and low-fat protein.

Exercise regularly.

Besides helping you burn more calories, doing a combination of aerobic exercise and strength-training will help you build muscle mass, which can increase your metabolic rate and keep insulin levels and stress hormone levels on a more even keel, says Dr. Danine Fruge, associate medical director and women's health director at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami.

Manage stress and get plenty of sleep.

Getting a grip on stress and sleeping for at least seven hours per night can prevent surges in stress hormones -- like cortisol, which can promote fat storage in the belly -- advises Fruge.

"It's absolutely possible to prevent or reverse metabolic syndrome in just about everyone who can move their body and make these lifestyle changes," says Fruge.

Just keep in mind that "as you get fat inside the muscles and organs of the abdomen, it can lead to insulin resistance and affect the way your body metabolizes food, which can cause your body to burn calories at a slower rate," says Fruge. "People in the throes of a sluggish metabolism need to be patient, because weight loss may be slow in the first few weeks. But with consistency, it will happen." And when it does, the health risks associated with metabolic syndrome will go down too.


Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Self, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.


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Health - Metabolic Syndrome: Are You At Risk?