Over the last few decades, ongoing research has helped doctors more fully understand the complex relationship between obesity and a number of negative health outcomes. One of the ways the international medical community has tried to clarify this link is by establishing the criteria for diagnosing metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by having several obesity-related health conditions at the same time, and it also can make weight loss even more difficult.
According to the American Heart Association, more than a third of adults in the United States have metabolic syndrome. A syndrome isn’t a single disease but is instead a group of symptoms or conditions. In this case, metabolic syndrome is a group of five conditions that are related and similarly increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A person with metabolic syndrome will have been diagnosed with at least three of these five conditions:
Metabolic syndrome is typically diagnosed by measuring the five related conditions against a set of standards. High blood pressure, for instance, is considered to be 130/85 mmHg or higher. Abdominal obesity is usually measured by waistline circumference: 35 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men. Doctors also use blood tests to determine blood glucose (100 mg/dL or higher), triglyceride (150 mg/dL or higher), and HDL cholesterol levels (50 mg/dL or less for women and 40 mg/dL for men).
The question of what causes metabolic syndrome is still very much an open one. In fact, there is even still some debate in the scientific community about the validity of the label itself. While the link between all of the conditions associated with metabolic syndrome is quite clear, the precise mechanism and underlying cause are still being studied. The ultimate goal is to find an explanation for the connection between these conditions that can help inform healthcare strategies.
One explanation that is widely accepted as at least part of the answer is insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone released into the bloodstream when blood sugar is high; the insulin enables cells all over the body to use the sugar (glucose) for their energy needs. When someone is insulin resistant, it means their cells no longer respond to insulin and can’t use the excess glucose in the bloodstream. As a result, blood glucose levels remain high and can eventually cause a variety of health problems.
Researchers don’t yet know the exact cause of metabolic syndrome, but they have discovered numerous risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these risk factors are also similar to those that have been identified for insulin resistance and other obesity-related conditions. Below are some of these risk factors:
In the vast majority of cases, metabolic syndrome occurs in part because of the choices behind a person’s regular diet and physical activity levels. Because of this, treatment is primarily focused on losing weight and thereby gradually decreasing the impact of the risk factors that lead to metabolic syndrome. Even initially minor lifestyle changes can quickly begin to make a difference, but under a doctor’s supervision there are a variety of options for how to lose weight and begin to reverse some of the drivers of metabolic syndrome and other related conditions.
Weight loss is challenging under any circumstance because of different physical, emotional, and biochemical factors, but it is unfortunately even harder with metabolic syndrome. The main reason for this is insulin resistance. When insulin has reduced effectiveness, excess glucose in the bloodstream gets converted to fat stores; this leads both to more body fat and to even less effectiveness of insulin. In addition to the impact on weight loss, the combination of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome damages blood vessels and makes heart attack and stroke more likely.
Yet even though metabolic syndrome can initially hamper weight loss to some degree, it’s still both possible and highly recommended. As high blood sugar levels are one of the key drivers of obesity, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome, one of the most important steps to take is to reduce consumption of simple carbohydrates, particularly the type that comes in the form of sugary foods and refined white flour; these foods have a high glycemic index and therefore require insulin to metabolize. If they are avoided, however, insulin resistance and the other risk factors for metabolic syndrome can begin to be reversed.
As anyone knows who has tried to lose weight before, it’s easier said than done. Dietary changes and an increase in physical activity are equally crucial for weight loss as well as overall health, but most people need a more comprehensive approach. After all, studies have repeatedly shown that relying on a healthy diet and exercise alone is not effective for long-term, sustainable weight loss. This is even more true for people with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance who are biochemically at a disadvantage when it comes to typical weight loss methods.
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