Metabolic Syndrome – Not Simply a “Spare Tire” Issue

I recently read an article called “Metabolic Breakdown: How a spare tire leads to diabetes and heart disease” published in Nutrition Action Health Letter. The expert interviewed for this article was Doctor Michael Miller, the director of the Center for Preventative Cardiology and a professor of medicine, epidemiology, and public health and the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine. I subscribe this newsletter and I think it’s a very useful source, but I wanted to add my opinion about the metabolic syndrome issue because I think the article had some good points, along with some very off-based points.

Cool it with the body bashing, please

My main problem here is a big one; I disagree with the article’s weight and body image focus. The subtitle of the article reads, “How a spare tire leads to diabetes and heart disease.” This sends the wrong message to readers. A “spare tire” does not automatically mean you are unhealthy. And also- why use the term “spare tire?” That is an offensive term for something that a lot of people genetically have, healthy or not. I’ve done many endurance trail races with men and women with a so-called “spare tire” who clearly know how to crush out a run.

You cannot tell by looking at someone that they don’t exercise, eat right, or have health risks just because they have fat on their belly area. We all have different genetic make-ups that give us different shapes and sizes. I have plenty of clients that eat well, exercise, and have lowered their cholesterol and triglyceride numbers, but still have what you would call a “spare tire.”

It is also harmful to use this term because it gives “thinner” people the idea that because they don’t have belly fat that they are metabolically healthy, when that is not true whatsoever and there is research data to prove it. If this idea piques your interest, I highly recommend a look into the research and the movement “Health at Every Size”.

If not your size, then what?

Individual trends are the most important indicator of your health, not the shape of your body. Trends are so important because they are a product of habits and lifestyle changes. If you have three more inches on your gut than you did ten years ago, is it possible that your habits have changed? If so, what do you want to change back? Lack of exercise or increased unhealthy food consumption can change your cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin response.

Healthy Habits Matter in Reducing Metabolic Syndrome Risk – Regardless of Size

The reason I want to not focus on the “spare tire” aspect of metabolic syndrome is the fact that the context of changing this syndrome is healthy habits. This should be the main point because people who decide they want to start making healthy changes but don’t see results in body fat might stop trying to be healthy.

Three Out of Five Possible Conditions Needed for “Metabolic Syndrome”

Belly fat is known to generate factors that increase inflammation and heart disease risk. But, let me give you some background. Metabolic syndrome effects one out of four Americans and is diagnosable when a person has at least three of these five features:

  1. a large waist,
  2. low HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind,) and
  3. higher than normal blood sugar,
  4. higher than normal triglycerides and
  5. higher than normal blood pressure.

A large waist is only one of the five criteria for metabolic syndrome, so it is confusing to me why the waist is the focus and the only criteria mentioned in the title.

Another Miss… What to Do to Lose Weight Reduce Metabolic Syndrome Risk

Seeing hundreds of clients has given me perspective on the wide range of nutritional needs people have. However, in the article, an established health practitioner gave an oversimplified piece of advice for those who would like to lose weight and decrease their metabolic syndrome risk: Cut out two slices of bread or 1 bagel every day.

How many of you find this advice laughable? First of all… what if you don’t eat bread or bagels daily? Or what if you eat cake for breakfast, but decide to cut out the tuna sandwich at lunch.

This, to me, reinforces the idea that doctors might not know exactly what a dietitian does because it is very rare that advice is that simple for a person. Many carbohydrates are good for our bodies – it is fuel for our brain and our muscles – especially with exercise. Cutting a serving out doesn’t automatically improve health. Some people are already eating lower carbs and don’t have 2 pieces of bread to cut out. Dietitians work with a person to find a realistic approach to obtain their goals.

What You Can Really Do to Decrease Metabolic Syndrome Risk

If you take out body size, there are several things you can do to evaluate your risk for metabolic syndrome. Here is what you can do:

  1. Be honest with yourself. Think about your eating, exercise, and stress habits and decide if there is room for improvement.
  2. Get accurate fasting labs done. Know your numbers and watch for trends throughout the years.
  3. Reflect on your body’s trend. Have you noticed some weight gain around your belly area that has coincided with a bad habit like stopping exercise or going out to eat more?

A High Point in the Article – Even Thinner People Should Know Where They Stand Metabolically

As much as I take issue with negative body image aspect of the article, I really resonate with the part of the article that reads, “even though you may appear normal, you may still not be metabolically normal.”  The media throw the idea at us that “skinny is healthy” and “fat is unhealthy.” These are misconceptions and there is scientific evidence that proves you can be healthy at any size. Linda Bacon’s book Healthy At Every Size has evidence that shows that “overweight” people live longer than “normal” weight people. This isn’t an excuse to go run for a bag of chips, but it shows that even if you have a normal BMI, you can be metabolically unhealthy and more at risk for metabolic syndrome than someone with an overweight BMI this is metabolically healthy.

My main point is to take out the body image part and focus on genetics and habits. Healthy habits will not only cut your risk for metabolic syndrome, but also help you sleep better and have more energy. My clients that have made healthy behavioral habits feel great and have forever ditched dieting. This article and its focus on body shape may make my clients think that they aren’t doing enough or that their progress is not having an impact- but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

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Filed under: diet, health, new research, nutrition, obesity, weight loss Tagged: | , ,

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