Five foods which contribute to metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is increasingly common in the UK – in fact it is estimated that around one in four adults has it. It is a term given for a cluster of conditions which together raise your risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other serious health problems.

How do you know if you have metabolic syndrome?

You may have metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following conditions:

–        A large waistline – abdominal fat in your stomach area increases your risk for heart disease more than the fat in other parts of your body. A healthy waist to hip ratio should be 0.85 for women and 0.9 for men. A ratio higher than 1.0 for either sex is of concern.

–        High blood pressure (BP) – if your BP rises and stays high for a long time, it can damage your heart and blood vessels. This can lead to a build up of plaque in your arteries. A healthy level is 120/80mmHg or less.

–        High blood glucose levels – this can damage your blood vessels and raise your risk of getting blood clots. Your HbA1c level should be under 42mmol/mol.

–        High blood triglycerides – these are a type of fat found in your blood and high levels can raise your LDL cholesterol which increases your risk of heart disease. A fasting level should be below 1.7mmol/L.

–        Low HDL cholesterol – this ‘good’ HDL cholesterol can help remove the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol from your blood vessels. Too much of the latter can cause plaque build up. A healthy HDL level is at least 1mmol/L for men and 1.2mmol/L for women.

If you have metabolic syndrome, your symptoms will depend on which condition you have. An increasing waistline will be apparent to you and high blood glucose can cause blurred vision, increased thirst, increased urination (especially at night) and tiredness. However, some conditions, such as high BP, high blood triglycerides or low HDL cholesterol don’t have symptoms and you’ll need regular BP readings and blood tests. These blood tests were discussed in more detail in our previous blog ‘Essential blood tests you should review annually’.

Contributing factors to metabolic disease may include age and your genes, neither of which you can control, and diet and lifestyle, which fortunately you can control.  When it comes to diet, any foods which spike your blood glucose, raise your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, or simply add too many calories devoid of essential nutrients can lead to metabolic dysfunction. Listed below are five of the worst food culprits which you should avoid as much as possible.

Five of the worst types of food for metabolic health

While nutrition is highly individual and not everybody will react the same to foods, if you’re looking for a way to simplify your diet and reduce or cut out some of the most harmful foods, these five categories are an excellent place to start.

1.  Sugar (in all its forms)

Regularly eating too much sugar can cause considerable damage to the body. Whether consumed in “natural” foods (such as honey or fruit juices) or as added sugar or as highly refined carbohydrates, your body digests and releases the glucose directly into the bloodstream. There, it triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which shuttles glucose into your cells for immediate fuel, or into your muscle or fat cells for storage.

Foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, especially in the absence of fibre, protein or fat, tend to cause sharper elevations in blood glucose and subsequent insulin responses that can be damaging over the long term. These foods increase inflammatory markers in the body, a precursor to chronic disease and increase fat in the liver. Chronically high blood glucose can lead to insulin resistance, where your body becomes less efficient at using insulin to shuttle glucose into cells. That, in turn, leads to consistently high fasting blood glucose levels – already a sign of metabolic dysfunction – and eventually Type 2 diabetes.

How to avoid: Always check nutrition labels and ingredient lists for added sugars on packaged foods, and keep in mind that foods labelled “low-fat” can have even more sugar than their full-fat counterparts.

2. Wheat Flours

Wheat flours, which include bread, pastry, all-purpose and cake flours, are another form of easily digestible carbohydrates. Unlike the whole wheat grains, which retain the germ, bran, and endosperm, the milled wheat flours have had the germ and bran removed. As a result, they lack the fibre, fat, and other nutrients that occur naturally in the whole grains. This makes them easy to digest quickly and causes a blood glucose spikes. We refer to these foods as having a high glycaemic index (GI) which is a measure of how quickly and how much a food raises your blood glucose. Diets composed of foods with a high GI increase the risk of metabolic syndrome.

How to avoid: A good option is to substitute all or most of the wheat flour in your recipes with almond, hazelnut, or coconut flours. These flours are lower in carbs and have a less pronounced effect on your blood glucose levels. They’re relatively easy to make yourself in a food processor. Also, limit packaged snacks and bread products with wheat flour as a main ingredient.

3. Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs)

These foods include frozen meals, packaged snacks, granola bars, sodas, and cereals that contain few whole food ingredients, have little nutritional value and have additives and preservatives to improve texture and flavour and to extend shelf-life. Especially dangerous are processed meats and bacon. Many UPFs are engineered with combinations of fat, sugar and salt which stimulate appetite leading to overeating. UPFs are known to increase inflammation and a high intake is associated with increased insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.

How to avoid: Always read ingredient labels and if you don’t recognise the ingredients, steer away from those foods. Choose foods in their whole, natural form or foods that are minimally processed such as frozen fruits or vegetables, and canned beans and legumes.

4. Vegetable Oils and Refined Seed Oils

Many refined vegetable and seed oils are high in omega-6 fats, which have been linked to poor metabolic health. The omega-6 fatty acid of greatest concern is linoleic acid (LA). Excessive consumption of LA can contribute to insulin resistance and increased inflammation, elevating the risk of cardiovascular disease. Oils high in LA include safflower, sunflower, canola and grapeseed oil.

How to avoid: These seed oils are ubiquitous in UPFs and packaged foods, so read labels diligently. When cooking, use avocado, olive or coconut oils as well as butter and ghee.

5. Fast Food

By their very nature, most fast foods are UPFs and are loaded with refined flours, saturated fat, salt and hidden sugars and are engineered to be potentially addictive! Regular fast food consumption is linked with abdominal fat gain, impaired insulin function and systemic inflammation – all key markers for metabolic disease.

How to avoid: If you’re traveling, plan ahead and pack in a homemade lunch and healthy snacks. If you need to buy ready-made foods, there are increasingly more healthy options on the high street, so choose wisely.

In conclusion

What you eat has a powerful impact on your metabolic health. Our Western diet is filled with foods containing highly refined carbohydrates, unhealthy oils and added sugars that promote inflammation and contribute to metabolic dysfunction. In order to maintain a metabolically healthy body, it is important to have a varied, whole foods diet which provides all the nutrients necessary to produce energy, fight infection and reduce inflammation.