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Metabolic Syndrome Diet: What to Eat and What to Avoid

Fight metabolic syndrome with heart-healthy foods

Person spooning rolled oats into a kitchen pot as part of meal prep

Metabolic syndrome is a serious condition. It’s a cluster of factors that put you at risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

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But you can turn it around by making some changes to your eating habits, says dietitian Melissa Matteo, MS, RD, LD, CDE. “Changing how you eat can make a real difference in controlling metabolic syndrome.”

What is metabolic syndrome?

According to the American Heart Association, a person has metabolic syndrome if they have three or more of these factors:

  • High blood sugar.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood).
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol (so-called “good” cholesterol).
  • Large waist size or an “apple-shaped” body.

The good news: Adopting healthier eating habits can influence each of those factors.

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Metabolic syndrome: Foods to avoid

Overhauling your diet might sound intimidating. But you don’t have to go extreme. As a first step, Matteo recommends focusing on what unhelpful foods you can phase out. These include:

  • Refined carbs such as white flour, sugary snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages, which are low in fiber and nutrients. And if that’s not bad enough, they also cause spikes in blood sugar levels and contribute to overeating and obesity.
  • Saturated fats found in foods like red meat, whole-milk dairy products and many baked goods. They can increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and raise the risk of heart disease.
  • Cured meats like hot dogs, bacon and deli meats, which have been linked to heart disease. They’re high in sodium, too, which contributes to high blood pressure.
  • Processed foods such as packaged items and fast food. These tend to combine the worst of the worst and often contain refined carbs, added sugars, too much salt and unhealthy saturated fats. Whenever possible, steer clear of processed foods.

A diet plan for metabolic syndrome

Once you’ve deep-sixed the processed stuff, you can start building meals around heart-healthy alternatives. “There’s no specific metabolic syndrome diet,” Matteo says. “Focus on whole, plant-based foods.”

She suggests checking out the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, seafood and olive oil. Research has linked this eating style to weight loss and a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes and Type 2 diabetes.

A healthy balanced diet should include:

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Vegetables

“Add more veggies — especially non-starchy vegetables like salad greens, broccoli and peppers,” Matteo says. When you do choose starchy vegetables, opt for those that are higher in fiber, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Fruits

Fruits are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Yes, they also have sugar, but those natural sugars are offset by the fiber found in whole fresh or frozen fruit. “Because of the fiber, you digest the sugars in fruit more slowly,” Matteo says. Tasty high-fiber fruits include raspberries, blackberries and pears.

Whole grains

Unlike processed grains that have been stripped of nutrients, whole grains are good for heart health. Foods like whole-wheat breads, barley and oats can help you avoid weight gain and lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids can help increase HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL (bad cholesterol),” Matteo says. You’ll find them in nuts, seeds and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.

Keto diets and metabolic syndrome

Some people wonder if the trending “keto diet” can help treat metabolic syndrome. The answer? It depends.

The keto diet is a low-carb diet that focuses on eating fats at every meal. But research about its weight-loss effectiveness is mixed. Matteo says a big drawback is that most people find it hard to keep up this way of eating for the long haul.

“Do you see yourself still eating this way in a year, five or 10? If the answer is no, I don’t encourage this method,” she says. “If you do plan to eat this way for the rest of your life, I’d still recommend avoiding saturated fats and cured meats.”

Can I drink diet soda if I have metabolic syndrome?

Cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages is a really important step if you have metabolic syndrome. But what about diet soda?

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Some research has linked sugar substitutes in diet soda to weight gain and a variety of health problems. But the connection isn’t entirely clear.

“Diet soda gets a lot of bad press in the media, but it’s not so black and white,” Matteo says. “I definitely don’t recommend drinking a lot of it. But if it helps you wean yourself off of sugar-sweetened drinks, I think it’s ok to drink in moderation … but water is still the beverage of choice.”

Tips for changing your eating style

Changing your eating habits can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it overnight. “Start with baby steps,” Matteo says. “Identify one small positive change you can make first.”

She offers these tips for getting started:

  • Add before you subtract: Dwelling on all the foods you should avoid is a downer. Instead, focus on what you can add to make your meals healthier. “What’s your favorite fruit or vegetable? Can you add just a cup or half-cup of that per day?” Matteo says. “Think about where you can add in healthier options, especially plant-based foods.”
  • Drink water: Quenching your thirst with water might help cut down on cravings for soda, juice or other sugary beverages. Even better? “Drinking plenty of water is linked to small amounts of weight loss,” Matteo says.
  • Ask for help: If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian. “People worry dietitians will try to take away all their favorite treats, but we’re all about realistic goal-setting,” Matteo adds. “We’ll work with you to come up with manageable compromises to help you achieve your health goals.”

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