Metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems which are often found together in people who are obese. The combined effect of these can lead to serious health conditions, like diabetes, stroke or heart disease.

Metabolic syndrome includes:

If you have metabolic syndrome or any of the warning signs of metabolic syndrome, it's highly likely you need to make some major lifestyle changes. Making these changes can delay or prevent the development of more-serious disease.

What causes metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is often caused by an unhealthy lifestyle. People who eat too much food or consume a lot of sweetened beverages are most at risk of developing metabolic syndrome. A lack of exercise can also be a factor.

The word metabolism refers to how we process food to make energy. When we consume too much energy (food) our metabolism doesn't work as well as it should, causing problems such as insulin resistance – the main cause of type 2 diabetes. 

Other causes include abnormal sleep patterns, increased stress, genetics and ageing.

Warning signs

Having 3 or more of the following factors means you have metabolic syndrome; you are at risk of developing metabolic syndrome if you have 1 or 2 of them:

  • A large waist: roughly speaking, if you are a woman and you measure more than 90cm around the middle or a man who is more than 100cm, chances are you are obese and at increased risk of metabolic syndrome.
  • High blood pressureA blood pressure reading between 120/80mmHg and 140/90mmHg could mean you're at risk of developing high blood pressure. High blood pressure is considered to be 140/90 mmHg or higher.
  • High blood sugar: if a fasting blood-glucose test shows results of 6.1–6.9 mmol/L you may have prediabetes. Higher than this is a sign of diabetes.
  • A triglyceride level higher than 1.7mmol/L. This increases your risk of heart disease.
  • Reduced levels of good cholesterol (HDL): less than 50mg/dL for women or 40mg/ dL for men.

Risk factors

You are more likely to get metabolic syndrome if:

  • You are over 60. The risk of metabolic syndrome increases with age – 40% of over 60s have it. However, it can also affect children, with some research showing 1 in 8 school children have 3 or more components of metabolic syndrome.
  • You’re Maori or Polynesian – metabolic syndrome is more common among these ethnic groups.
  • There’s a family history of conditions such as diabetes.
  • You carry excess weight around your middle.
  • You have a hormonal imbalance that causes conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • You don't lead an active lifestyle.
  • You had gestational diabetes while you were pregnant.

How is metabolic syndrome treated?

Because metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems, treatment will depend on which symptoms you have developed. You may be given medication to treat problems such as high blood pressurediabetes or high cholesterol.

If you have been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, or have any of its warning signs, losing weight is the most important thing you can do. This can usually be achieved by making healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating less and exercising more. See our healthy living section for tips on healthy eating and exercise and more great advice to help get you started. Learning how to manage stress will make it easier to stick with a healthy lifestyle plan.

How can I reduce my risk?

Whether you have any of the warning signs of metabolic syndrome or not, the following 8 tips will reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke:

  1. Commit to a healthy diet. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choose lean cuts of white meat or fish over red meat. Avoid processed or deep-fried foods. Eliminate table salt and experiment with other herbs and spices.
  2. Lose weight. Losing just 5-10% of your body weight if you are overweight or obese can help reduce blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.
  3. Exercise more. Get plenty of regular, moderately strenuous physical activity. This can improve blood pressure and help control cholesterol. Walking briskly for around 30 minutes a day is a good start.
  4. Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes increases insulin resistance and worsens the health consequences of metabolic syndrome. Get the help you need to kick this hazardous habit.
  5. Eat high-fibre foods such as whole grains, beans and vegetables. These help lower your insulin levels. 
  6. Eat less sugar. Foods and drinks high in sugar mess with your metabolism and cause your insulin levels to rise. 
  7. Eat less fat. Take it easy on foods containing saturated fats, trans fats (found in fried food, biscuits and other sweets), cholesterol and salt.
  8. Have regular check-ups. See your doctor regularly to have blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked. Make any lifestyle changes needed if your results show signs of trouble. 

Learn more

Metabolic syndrome Mayo Clinic
Metabolic syndrome Sugar Research Advisory Service
What is metabolic syndrome National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Credits: Dr Jeremy Tuohy. Last reviewed: 01 Mar 2017