What Is the Best Diet To Avoid Metabolic Syndrome?
Your doctor may never use the term metabolic syndrome, but you may still have this dangerous cluster of health problems.
Here's a clue: Do you have three or more of these?
- High blood sugar
- High blood pressure
- High triglycerides (a blood fat)
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol
- A big waist (40+ inches for men; 35+ for women measured at the belly button)
All these symptoms can be problematic on their own, but having three or more puts you at much greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other health serious health complications—including cancer. In fact, studies show that 90–95% of all cancer cases can be attributed to lifestyle (diet, smoking) and environment while only 5–10% are linked to genetic causes.
Metabolic syndrome also goes by the names syndrome X and insulin resistance. When people hear the diagnosis, it's often a wake-up call.
"They get serious about their diet because they're motivated to stay off medication," Justine Chan, MHSc, RD, a certified diabetes educator and owner of YourDiabetesDietitian.com, tells Eat This, Not That!
That's a good thing, because dietary changes can have a significant impact on stopping and even reversing many of those factors that define metabolic syndrome.
What is the best diet for metabolic syndrome?
You may not be surprised to learn that the best nutritional plan for overcoming metabolic syndrome is the Mediterranean diet when you consider that research has linked that specific style of eating to improving every one of the five disorders that make up the metabolic syndrome.
One such study published in the journal Obesity demonstrated that improving one's diet by following a Mediterranean-style diet resulted in significantly less visceral fat accumulation in the abdomen over six years. Visceral fat is the type of fat that surrounds your organs and releases inflammatory chemicals that increase risk of developing metabolic syndrome and its related diseases.
A more recent study in Frontiers in Nutrition suggested that people who followed a Mediterranean-style diet did not develop metabolic syndrome even though they remained obese. In the study of 2115 obese women, researchers measured abdominal visceral fat, subcutaneous fat, blood biomarkers and adherence to the Mediterranean diet. They found that following that style of eating regularly correlated with better metabolic health in postmenopausal women compared to overweight women who did not follow the diet.
Why a Mediterranean diet is easier to follow
Chan says her patients like the Mediterranean diet because it's "not restrictive." Sure, processed foods are omitted and red meats are minimized, but it's a diet of abundance not sacrifice.
"The Mediterranean diet is focused on what you can eat more of, not less," says Chan. "It's more of an eating pattern versus a traditional diet that restricts this food or that food; the message is a positive one."
As a refresher, here's a menu of dietary changes to healthier eating, Mediterranean style:
Fill most of your plate with plants
"The key to healthy eating is focusing on plant-based foods," says Chan. "Vegetables and fruits are full of unique anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants that impact metabolic health. The dietary fiber in plant foods reduces blood sugar levels and lowers cholesterol."
Swap pork and beef with beans
To minimize meat, try to cut back your meat meals to three or four times a week versus seven. Eventually, you may find yourself eating meat just once or twice weekly, if at all.
To satisfy your hunger and keep up your consumption of muscle-repairing protein, make beans and legumes the stars of your meals. A meta-analysis of 36 studies in Circulation in 2019 found that substituting red meat with high-quality plant proteins like beans resulted in improved levels of cholesterol and other blood fats.
Avoid refined grains
Refined grains from white rice to the flour made into cakes, cookies, bagels, and breads, are devoid of fiber, the key nutrient that slows digestion, keeps you feeling full, and lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Some of the best are barley, oats, faro, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat.
Choose healthy fats like olive oil
Olive oil is all fat, but it's mostly made up of monounsaturated fats, the kind that are healthy for your heart. Choose extra virgin olive oil when you can as EVOO contains the most phenolic compounds.
"Phenolic compounds act like antioxidants and prevent cell damage, fighting diseases like heart disease and cancer," says Chan.
In addition, some studies show that consuming monounsaturated fats along with a healthy diet rich in plant foods may reduce insulin resistance better than low-fat or high-protein diets.
A 2022 study in Frontiers in Endocrinology compared people who ate their normal diet with the addition of about 1.7 ounces of extra virgin olive oil daily to a group that consumed that amount of EVOO with a traditional healthy Brazilian diet based on beans and rice, vegetables, lean meats, and fruit—many of the same foods found in a Mediterranean-style diet. The participants in both groups were obese with type 2 diabetes. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that only the group who at the healthy Brazilian diet combined with olive oil decreased fasting insulin levels and markers of inflammation while lowering body mass index and weight.
There's one more benefit to olive oil and the wide variety of Mediterranean diet foods for that matter—an abundance of delicious flavors. Find your favorites by trying these 15 Best Mediterranean Diet Recipes.
What about dairy?
Milk isn't traditionally part of the Mediterranean-style diet, but small amounts of cheese and Greek yogurt are fine. Just avoid those highly processed yogurts that contain added sugars. Choose plain Greek yogurt, which is also rich in protein, and add your own fruit or a drizzle of honey to sweeten.
Eat at least fish twice a week
Those long-living people near the Mediterranean Sea eat fish—not a ton, but regularly enough. However, you can do the same even if you may not live near the ocean. You're close enough to Costco, Trader Joe's, or your local fishmonger. Choose oily fish like sardines, salmon, tuna, and mackerel, which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Not only will more fish in your diet help fight metabolic syndrome, but those omega-3s will protect your brain, too.