Studies don’t show any one particular kind of food choice that will make a difference in dealing with or reducing risk of metabolic syndrome. It really seems to be about the overall eating habits. A combined analysis of 50 studies shows that a Mediterranean-style eating pattern lowers risk of metabolic syndrome by about 30 percent. That doesn’t mean eating at Italian and Greek restaurants every night – in fact, the way those cuisines are often adapted for U.S. customers, that could be exactly the wrong thing to do.
Here are what seem to be the keys to the Mediterranean pattern that counters development of metabolic syndrome:
- Focus your eating around vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
- Limit refined grains like white rice and white bread.
- Choose poultry and fish, including types high in omega-3 fat like salmon and albacore tuna, more often than red meat.
- Don’t try to avoid all fat, but watch amounts to avoid surplus calories. Choose healthful types like olive and canola oils.
- Enjoy high-calorie snacks and desserts as occasional treats, not everyday fare
- If you drink alcohol, make sure to keep it within the limits of moderation (no more than one standard drink per day for women or two for men).
Metabolic syndrome usually involves excess body fat – even if it’s just a steady gain over the years. A successful strategy has to address that. Centering your eating around vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans helps by letting you eat hunger-satisfying portions without excessive calories. Their dietary fiber and antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals add an extra punch.
In one randomized controlled study of obese adults with metabolic syndrome, those instructed to choose only whole grains showed a drop in CRP, a measure of inflammation in the body, that was not achieved by those eating only refined grains. Both groups cut about 500 calories a day from their usual total, which seemed to be the key to reducing body insulin levels.
What about dietary fat? Too much high-fat food, especially if it’s also loaded with sugar or refined grains, is going to make weight control more difficult. Some studies suggest that a low-fat diet may be helpful in metabolic syndrome. However, in other studies, monounsaturated fat (as in olive oil) and the omega-3 fat found in certain fish seem to promote healthy metabolic changes.
In one study of people with metabolic syndrome, those who scored highest for healthy eating habits were nearly twice as likely as the others to have reversed it five years later.
With a Mediterranean-style eating pattern as your overall model, here are some specific choices that can help:
- Switch proportions in casseroles and stir-fries to include more non-starchy vegetables than grains or meat, and switch the grains to whole grains such as brown rice, whole grain pasta or quinoa.
- Increase the number of meals you eat using beans or fish for protein.
- Snack on raw vegetables, fresh or dried fruit or nuts rather than refined carbohydrates like cookies or pretzels.
- When you have sweets, savor them in small portions after meals rather than as snacks. Portion control will be easier. They’ll also be less likely to set off a spike in blood sugar and insulin when consumed with other foods than on their own.
- Face the reality: Calorie needs usually decrease as we get older, making portion control essential. Fill up on those healthy vegetables so you don’t go hungry, and reduce portions of everything else. You’ll probably be amazed at how comfortably you can eat a little less.
Adopting a few healthy eating changes and adding in some regular walks can bring a huge payoff.
Let’s talk: How have you hurdled obstacles to this healthy eating pattern? What is still most daunting?
To learn more about adopting a more Mediterranean-style eating pattern, check this information from Oldways.