Our genes can predispose us to metabolic syndrome, but it’s our diet that can seal the deal. The food you put into your body has a direct affect on all five factors associated with metabolic syndrome: high blood pressure, large waistline, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol and high fasting blood sugar.

“Most people with metabolic syndrome need to lose weight, first of all,” says Mira Ilac, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. A good diet is a powerful first step. However, it’s not about skipping meals or loading up your grocery cart with highly processed “diet” foods, since both of these strategies usually backfire. “You need to learn to make your calories work for you, not against you,” Ilac says.

QUIZ: What’s Your Eating Style?

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Start each day with a high-fiber, cholesterol-lowering breakfast. Try a cup of oatmeal made with fat-free milk and topped with blueberries. Whole-grain cereals that are high in fiber and low in sugar are also great choices — especially topped with fruit.

Eat the Right Kind of Fat
Among the keys to reversing metabolic syndrome is raising your HDL cholesterol (remember “H” for healthy) and lowering your LDL (remember “L” for lousy). Blood cholesterol is actually fat circulating in your blood — which means to control it, you want to watch the fats circulating in your diet.

  • Trounce trans fat. “Trans fat has been center stage for a while,” Ilac says, because it raises LDL cholesterol and lowers HDL. Now it’s labeled clearly on packaged food (and in some places, banned outright) and is much easier to avoid. Make an effort to cut it out completely!
  • Scuttle saturated fat. Found in things like whole-fat dairy and red meat, saturated fat raises that lousy LDL. Don’t think you’re consigned to just skinless chicken breasts though — try ground turkey for low-fat meatloaf or chili; try seafood as another source of lean protein.
  • Power up on polyunsaturated fats, particularly omega-3s. Found in salmon and other fish, as well as canola oil, flaxseed and walnuts, omega-3s reduce inflammation and can help lower triglycerides.
  • Make the most of monounsaturated fats. Found in olive oil and canola oil, these heart-healthy fats lower LDL cholesterol. Saute vegetables in them; use them to dress your salads.

MORE: The Saturated Fat Situation

Choose Quality Carbohydrates
When it comes to nutrition, not all carbs are created equal. “Some foods raise your blood sugar more quickly,” Ilac says, like refined and processed foods full of white flour or added sugar. These high-sugar foods also contribute to high triglyceride levels. On the other hand, minimally or unprocessed carbs, like whole grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables are digested more slowly and evenly because they have more fiber — meaning you keep your blood sugar on an even keel. Plus, they pack in more nutrients bite for bite and fill you up better. 

  • Avoid the striptease. Choose carbs that haven’t been stripped of their fiber. Look for the first ingredient in bread and cereals to be “whole.” Pick unprocessed grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley or bulgur for your side dishes.
  • Fill up on fruits and vegetables. In addition to the host of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds produce offers, fruits and vegetables are filling and delicious. Be daring: Try substituting sliced jicama with salsa for chips and dip; swap your Mars bar for mango slices.
  • Seek out soluble fiber. In addition to filling you up, soluble fiber helps lower LDL cholesterol. “For every one to two grams of soluble fiber you eat every day, you may lower your LDL by 1 percent,” Ilac says. Getting that amount is as simple as adding an apple or a cup of blueberries to your daily diet. Other sweet sources: nectarines, raspberries, apricots, figs, prunes. Plus, you’ll find soluble fiber in such vegetables and legumes as zucchini, cabbage, beans, peas and lentils. Try making a shredded apple and cabbage slaw for a sweet-and-savory soluble fiber feast; dress lightly with canola oil and cider vinegar.

Dose Up on D
Experts estimate some 30 to 50 percent of us are deficient in this nutrient. Why is the “sunshine vitamin” so important? A growing body of research links vitamin D deficiency with heart disease risk and insulin resistance. Between spending more time indoors, wearing sunscreen and many of us living in northern climates where the sun is scarce for months at a time, it’s not surprising we’re short on vitamin D, Ilac says.

The study authors argue that we need to do a better job testing for vitamin D deficiency and making use of supplements. It’s especially important for individuals with metabolic syndrome to have their vitamin D levels tested and to talk about supplementation.

by Judi Ketteler