Abdominal fat accumulation is the most easily identifiable sign of metabolic syndrome, but it’s by no means the only one. Metabolic syndrome, also called Syndrome X and “insulin resistance syndrome,” is loosely defined as having any three of the following: abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high fasting blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, or low HDL cholesterol.
Individually, these conditions are problematic, but even more troubling in combination; you should be aware that in addition to an “early warning sign” of diabetes, metabolic syndrome can also be an indication of impending heart disease. In fact, many people discover they are diabetic only after they experience a heart attack.
One Swedish study revealed that as many as 40 percent of those patients who were admitted with acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) were diabetic but didn’t know it.
Abdominal Fat Is Just the Beginning
It’s been well documented that having a pear–shaped body (smaller waist but larger hips) is healthier than having an apple–shaped body (more fat at the waist). But what complicates matters slightly is that not all abdominal fat is created equal.
Fat can develop in three different compartments of the abdominal region: abdominal (stored between the skin and the abdominal wall), visceral (in and around the internal organs), and retroperitoneal (the back and sides or what we commonly refer to as “love handles”). Fat in each of these areas has its own metabolic reaction, as well as its own contribution to disease.
Researchers, however, have recently discovered that the amount of visceral fat is probably the best indicator of your risk for diabetes and heart disease. The relationship makes sense when you consider that the veins of the internal organs drain into the liver and visceral fat is the only type that shares this circulation. The liver connection is what makes excess visceral fat so dangerous because it can contribute to non-alcohol fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Obviously, much of the fat accumulation problem originates in the diet (i.e., too much highly refined sugar and carbohydrates and too little fiber and fresh produce).
When you eat sugar, flour, or other refined carbohydrates, some of the digested sugars are used for your immediate energy needs. Any excess is converted to fat or fatty molecules called triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells for later use. Excess triglycerides in the blood are transported by the “good” cholesterol, the HDL form. HDL “attaches” to the triglycerides and tries to lower blood levels by taking them back to the liver. If you have low levels of HDL cholesterol (below 40 mg/dL for men and below 50 mg/dL for women), if your diet is high in refined carbohydrates, or if you’re diabetic, you may experience abnormally high triglyceride levels (equal to or greater than 150 mg/dL). While normal amounts of triglycerides are essential for good health, elevated triglycerides and other blood fats are associated with higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.
There are good fats and bad fats. In simple terms, the most harmful types of fat are the tiny droplets that can accumulate in the liver, organs, and other tissues in the abdominal area. They are responsible for creating a condition called insulin resistance (which is when cells in the body become resistant to the effects of insulin). In other words, insulin’s effect is reduced and higher levels are required for it to have any effect.
Resisting the Call
Insulin plays a key role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It even helps regulate cell growth in the body. One of insulin’s many jobs is to “open” the walls of muscle and fat cells and cause them to remove glucose from the blood. This process is one of the ways your body controls blood sugar levels. Insulin acts sort of like the policemen you see on the television show COPS. To lower blood sugar levels, it knocks on the door of muscle and fat cells. When the cells become more resistant to insulin, the body requires that the pancreas send out more insulin to get the job done.
As resistance continues to build, more and more insulin is needed to knock down the door. Eventually, when the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin, the blood sugar levels begin to rise. At first this increase in glucose happens just after meals. Later, it stays high even during the fasting state—which is when you have a diagnosis of diabetes.
The increase in insulin also triggers the constriction of blood vessels and promotes clotting, leading to high blood pressure and restriction of blood flow to the heart, which can trigger a heart attack. Basically, anything you can do to increase the efficiency of insulin and/or decrease your body’s need for the hormone will improve your health and extend your life
Diet, Exercise, and Three Metabolic Syndrome Fighters
Unsurprisingly, the best places to start are cleaning up your diet and getting regular exercise. At the very least, you should be getting around 25 grams of fiber in your diet each day. This is best obtained through whole grains (bran cereals are excellent fiber sources), berries, nuts, legumes, fruits with the skin and pulp, raw vegetables, et cetera. Avoid fried and processed foods, in favor of whole foods, lots of fresh fruits and veggies, and lean protein.
As important as diet is to controlling metabolic syndrome and reducing your risk for disease in the future, high-intensity exercise seems to specifically target that most-damaging visceral fat, according to researchers. Diet alone helps reduce the subcutaneous fat (the fat between the skin and the abdominal wall), but that fat is less harmful than that visceral fat within and surrounding the internal organs.
As you focus on sticking to a healthy diet and keeping up with regular exercise, try to up your consumption of the following three substances to aid in your battle against metabolic syndrome (and the heart disease and diabetes waiting for you down the road):
Not long ago, many doctors were telling their patients on prescription medications to curtail consumption of grapefruit and grapefruit juice. I thought the idea was absurd at the time, and I still do. Instead, the focus should be on helping these patients curtail their drug use. The problem is that eating grapefruit or drinking the juice increases the absorption of certain drugs by as much as 200 percent—particularly blood pressure–lowering medications and the popular (but dangerous) statin drugs used to lower cholesterol levels. Researchers have now discovered that the group of compounds called furanocoumarins is responsible for this increase in absorption.
Surely I’m not the only one who sees the irony in eliminating a nutritious food such as grapefruit—which could help reduce cholesterol oxidation, increase weight loss subsequently lowering blood pressure, and help prevent diabetes—so one can continue to utilize a pharmaceutical band–aid that, in the long term, may well increase one’s risk of dying. I realize that eating a grapefruit with every meal won’t solve all these health problems, but it can certainly be an integral part of an overall program that will address the underlying causes and not just mask symptoms with drugs.
At the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, researchers recently studied the effects of grapefruit and grapefruit juice on body weight and metabolic syndrome. A total of 91 obese patients received one of the following three times a day before meals: half a grapefruit with a placebo capsule; 8 ounces of grapefruit juice and a placebo capsule; grapefruit capsules and 7 ounces of apple juice; or placebo capsules and 7 ounces of apple juice.
After 12 weeks the fresh grapefruit group lost a total of 3.52 pounds. The grapefruit juice group lost 3.3 pounds. The grapefruit capsule group lost 2.42 pounds and the placebo group lost 0.35 pounds.
Grapefruit is not only a delicious way to help lose excess weight, it also appears to be a diabetic’s (or potential diabetic’s) best friend. While the grapefruit users in the above study saw significant weight loss, they experienced an additional benefit: a substantial reduction in blood glucose (blood sugar) and insulin levels. So, if you have signs of metabolic syndrome, ramp up your grapefruit intake (unless you’re taking a contraindicated medication).
Research on cinnamon shows it can safely and effectively boost insulin sensitivity. Cinnamon contains a group of flavonoids called Type A procyanidins, which have been shown to mimic the effects of insulin. These flavonoids not only help transport glucose into our cells, but they promote the synthesis of glycogen as well.
Research has shown that one to three grams of whole powder can reduce fasting glucose levels anywhere from 18 to 29 percent in type 2 diabetics. Interestingly, cinnamon maintains its positive effects on blood sugar for at least 12 hours. In one study when cinnamon was given to individuals up to 12 hours before a glucose tolerance test, levels of their blood glucose were 10 to 13 percent lower than in individuals given a placebo.
Ordinary cinnamon powder, just like you can buy in bulk at your local supermarket, is by far one of the easiest and least expensive methods to help control your blood sugar levels. (I’m aware that there’s been some controversy over the fact that what you buy in the grocery isn’t “true” cinnamon, but instead the bark of a plant called cassia. In fact, all the research showing benefits for blood sugar has been done using cassia.)
Like cinnamon, cayenne pepper has also shown promise as another inexpensive “poor man’s insulin.”
Researchers in Tasmania, Australia sent me details of their work in which they tested the effects of combining cayenne pepper with meals. The study revealed that even one meal with the pepper had an immediate effect, but it only lasted for a short period. They compared several different scenarios, but the most effective program by far at mitigating an insulin surge following meals involved taking about 4 grams of cayenne pepper with each meal. Individuals who followed this program produced about one–third less insulin. The greatest benefits were seen in the obese participants.
I don’t know how practical it is to take 4 grams of cayenne pepper with each meal. Obviously, most people would need to take this in capsules (except for those meals of boiled crawfish where the pepper flows rather freely over the “bugs”). However, by using cayenne pepper occasionally, and cinnamon or grapefruit at other times, you might be able to help head off future health problems associated with metabolic syndrome.