What is metabolic syndrome?

Diet and exercise for metabolic syndrome: Overview

Metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of health problems. It includes having too much fat around your waist and high blood pressure. It also includes high triglycerides, high blood sugar, and low levels of healthy (HDL) cholesterol. These problems make it more likely you will have a heart attack or stroke or get diabetes.

Your family history (your genes) can cause metabolic syndrome. So can unhealthy eating habits and not getting enough exercise.

You can help lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes if you eat healthy foods and get more exercise. It may be hard to make these lifestyle changes. But even small changes can help.

Metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions related to the body's metabolism. These conditions include excess body fat (particularly abdominal obesity); elevated triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar; and low HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol).

Metabolic syndrome is closely linked to insulin resistance, in which the body cannot use insulin properly.

Metabolic syndrome increases the risk for coronary artery disease (CAD), even beyond that caused by high LDL cholesterol alone. Weight loss and increased physical activity can reduce the risk for metabolic syndrome.

What are the symptoms of metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome usually doesn't cause symptoms. But you may have symptoms of some health problems related to metabolic syndrome. For example, high blood sugar may cause symptoms such as feeling very thirsty or very hungry. Or you may urinate more often than usual.

How is metabolic syndrome treated?

The main goal of treatment is to reduce your risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) and diabetes. The first approaches in treating metabolic syndrome are:

Weight control.

Being overweight is a major risk factor for CAD. Weight loss lowers LDL cholesterol and reduces all of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

Physical activity.

Lack of exercise is a major risk factor for CAD. Regular exercise can help improve cholesterol levels. It can also lower blood pressure, reduce insulin resistance, lower blood sugar levels, and improve heart function.

Assessing risk category for CAD and diabetes.

Then you and your doctor may discuss other treatments to lower LDL, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar.

How is metabolic syndrome diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose metabolic syndrome with a physical exam, your medical history, and some simple blood tests.

You may be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of these risk factors:

Abdominal obesity (waist measurement).

Men: 40 in. (102 cm) or more

Women: 35 in. (88 cm) or more


150 mg/dL or higher, or taking medicine for high triglycerides

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

Men: Less than 40 mg/dL

Women: Less than 50 mg/dL

Or taking medicine for low HDL cholesterol

Blood pressure.

130/85 mm Hg or higher, or taking medicine for high blood pressure

Fasting blood sugar.

100 mg/dL or higher, or taking medicine for high blood sugar

These criteria were developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Other organizations may have different criteria for diagnosis

How can you care for yourself when you have metabolic syndrome?

Caring for yourself focuses on doing things to lower your risk of health problems related to metabolic syndrome. These include losing weight if you need to, eating healthy foods, limiting high-sugar and high-fat foods, and getting regular exercise.

What increases your risk of developing metabolic syndrome?

The things that make you more likely to develop metabolic syndrome include:

Insulin resistance.

This means that your body cannot use insulin properly.

Abdominal obesity.

This means having too much fat around your waist.


Your chances of developing metabolic syndrome increase as you get older.

Lack of exercise.

If you do not exercise, you are more likely to be obese and develop metabolic syndrome.

Hormone imbalance.

A hormone disorder such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which the female body produces too much of certain hormones, is associated with metabolic syndrome.

Family history of type 2 diabetes.

Having parents or close relatives with diabetes is associated with metabolic syndrome.

Race and ethnicity.

African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders are at higher risk than whites for type 2 diabetes.

What causes metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle that includes eating too many calories, being inactive, and gaining weight, particularly around your waist. This lifestyle can lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which the body is unable to respond normally to insulin. If you have insulin resistance, your body cannot use insulin properly, and your blood sugar will begin to rise. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes.

What is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems that may include too much fat around the waist, elevated blood pressure, high triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and low HDL cholesterol.

Together, this group of health problems increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.

This syndrome raises your risk for coronary artery disease (CAD). It also increases your risk for diabetes.

How can you use diet and exercise for metabolic syndrome?

Eat more fruits and vegetables

  • Fruits and vegetables have nutrients to help protect you from heart disease and high blood pressure. They are low in fat and high in fiber. Dark green, orange, and yellow ones are the healthiest.
  • Keep lots of vegetables ready for snacks.
  • Buy fruit that is in season. Then put it where you can see it so you will want to eat it.
  • Cook dishes that have a lot of vegetables. Soups and stir-fries are good choices.

Limit saturated fats

  • Read food labels, and try to avoid saturated fats. They increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Use olive or canola oil when you cook.
  • Bake, broil, grill, or steam foods. Avoid fried foods.
  • Limit how much high-fat meat you eat. This includes hot dogs and sausages. When you prepare meat, cut off all the fat.
  • You can replace high-fat meat with fish and skinless poultry. You can also try products made from soybeans, like tofu. Soybeans may be very good for your heart.
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products.

Eat foods high in fiber

  • Foods high in fiber may reduce your cholesterol. And they may give you important vitamins and minerals. Good examples are oatmeal, cooked dried beans, brown rice, citrus fruits, and apples.
  • Eat whole-grain breads and cereals. They have more fiber than white bread or pastries.

Limit high-sugar foods

  • Limit foods and drinks that are high in sugar. Some examples are soda pop, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, candy, and many desserts.
  • Limit the amount of sugar, honey, and other sweeteners that you add to food and drinks.
  • Choose water instead of soda pop or other sugar-sweetened drinks.
  • Limit fruit juice.

Limit salt and sodium

  • You can help lower your blood pressure if you limit salt and sodium.
  • If you take the salt shaker off the table, it may be easier to use less salt. You can also try using half the salt in a recipe. And you can avoid adding salt to cooking water for pasta, rice, and potatoes.
  • Try to eat fewer snacks, fast foods, and other high-salt, processed foods. Check labels so you know how much sodium a food has.
  • Choose canned goods (soups, vegetables, and beans) that are low in sodium.

Get regular exercise

  • Get more exercise. Make sure your doctor knows when you start a new exercise program. Even small amounts of exercise will help you get stronger and have more energy. It can also help you manage your weight and your stress.
  • Walking is a good choice. Little by little, increase the amount you walk every day. Try for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

Sally's story: Making lifestyle changes to avoid metabolic syndrome

Find out how Sally lost weight and lowered her cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
"My doctor told me I had some of the health problems related to metabolic syndrome. And he said that I was at a greater risk for getting heart disease or diabetes if I didn't make some lifestyle changes."

Sally never had to worry about her weight. She had always been active, enjoying her daily walks in the park.

But things changed when Sally's mom had a heart attack. Sally took care of her mom night and day. But Sally got so busy taking care of her mom that she forgot to take care of herself.

For months, Sally didn't do any kind of activity. "When my mom was resting, I would take a nap instead of going for a walk," Sally says. And her eating habits changed. "I went from eating healthy foods to choosing comfort foods like macaroni and cheese."

Over time, Sally gained 20 pounds, and much of the weight was around her waist. But that wasn't all. Sally later found out that her cholesterol and blood sugar levels were higher than normal.

"My doctor told me I had some of the health problems related to metabolic syndrome. And he said that I was at a greater risk for getting heart disease or diabetes if I didn't make some lifestyle changes."

Sally knew she needed to get back in shape. "I started to go on some walks again. It was hard at first, but I started slowly and worked up to walking 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week," she says. "I also made some changes to my diet. More often than not, I choose fruits and vegetables over junk foods. And I make low-fat versions of my comfort foods."

These changes have helped Sally lose weight and lower her cholesterol and blood sugar levels. And they have given her more energy to care for her mom, who now joins Sally for walks as part of her recovery.

This story is based on information gathered from many people facing this health issue.

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