Metabolic syndrome

Key points about metabolic syndrome

  • Metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems which are often found together in people who are seriously overweight.
  • The combined effect of these can lead to serious health conditions, like diabetes, stroke or heart disease.
  • The syndrome includes obesity, high blood pressure, high blood glucose levels, high levels of triglycerides in the blood and low levels of good cholesterol.
  • If you have metabolic syndrome, or any of the warning signs of metabolic syndrome, making major lifestyle changes can delay or prevent the development of more serious disease.
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Metabolic syndrome includes:

You have metabolic syndrome when 3 or more of these factors are present. Any one of these problems will increase your risk of developing diabetes, stroke or heart disease, but when you have 3 or more together, the risk is much higher.

Metabolic syndrome and the health problems it causes can be delayed or prevented by making healthy lifestyle changes.

Although not all medical professionals will use the term “metabolic syndrome” to describe this group of problems, they all agree that the problems themselves, especially when combined, will put you at risk of serious health conditions.

Large waist measurement: having extra fat around your stomach (puku) means you have extra fat around your liver, pancreas and other internal organs which is a risk to your health. Whatever your weight, your waist measurement is important.

Recommended waist measurements in men and women are:

  • Men: Less than 94cm but less than 90cm if you are of South Asian, Chinese or Japanese origin.
  • Women: Less than 80cm.

If you're a man with a waist measurement more than 102cm or a woman with a waist measurement more than 88cm your health risk is greatly increased. 

High blood pressure: A blood pressure reading of 120/75 mmHg or lower is ideal for most people. High blood pressure is considered to be 140/90 mmHg or higher.

High blood glucose: If a fasting blood glucose test shows results of 6.1–6.9 mmol/L you may have prediabetes. Higher than this is a sign of diabetes.  

High triglycerides: A triglyceride level higher than 2.0 mmol/L increases your risk of heart disease.

Low HDL cholesterol: Having a reduced level of good cholesterol (HDL) is a risk factor. Less than 1.0 mmol/L is considered low. 

Because metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems, treatment will depend on which symptoms you have developed. You may be given medication to treat problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

If you've been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, or have any of its warning signs, making healthy lifestyle changes is the most important thing you can do to improve your health. See our hauora wellbeing section for tips on healthy eating and exercise and more great advice to help get you started. Learning how to manage stress will make it easier to stick with a healthy lifestyle plan.

Getting the right amount of good quality sleep also helps as this affects how your body absorbs nutrients from food. This may be a particular problem if you're a shift worker. The Te Kete Haerenga sleep toolkit has information on sleep and a tracking tool to record how you're doing with improving your sleep, and you can read more about sleep and shift work.

Whether you have any of the warning signs of metabolic syndrome or not, the following 8 tips will reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke:

  1. Commit to a healthy diet. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choose lean cuts of white meat or fish over red meat. Avoid processed or deep-fried foods. Eliminate table salt and experiment with other herbs and spices.
  2. Lose weight. Losing just 5–10% of your body weight if you are overweight or obese can help reduce blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol.
  3. Exercise more. Get plenty of regular, moderately strenuous physical activity. This can improve blood pressure and help control cholesterol. Walking briskly for around 30 minutes a day is a good start.
  4. Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes increases insulin resistance and worsens the health consequences of metabolic syndrome. Get the help you need to kick the habit.
  5. Eat high-fibre foods such as whole grains, beans and vegetables. These help lower your insulin levels. 
  6. Eat less sugar. Foods and drinks high in sugar mess with your metabolism and cause your insulin levels to rise. Read more about how to reduce sugar in your diet.
  7. Eat less fat. Take it easy on foods containing saturated fats, trans fats (found in fried food, biscuits and other sweets), cholesterol and salt.
  8. Have regular check-ups. See your healthcare provider regularly to have blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels checked. Make any lifestyle changes needed if your results show signs of trouble. 

You are more likely to get metabolic syndrome if:

  • You are over 60 years of age – the risk of metabolic syndrome increases with age, particularly if you are a woman.
  • You’re Māori or Pasifika – metabolic syndrome is more common among these ethnic groups.
  • You have a family history of conditions such as diabetes.
  • You have a hormonal imbalance that causes conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • You had gestational diabetes while you were pregnant.

These are factors that are out of your control so it's important to focus on the things that you are able to change, like eating healthy foods and being more active.

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Claire Salter, Pharmacist, Tauranga

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