A Metabolic Syndrome Guide: Diet, Foods to Eat/Avoid + Tips

Learn to manage metabolic syndrome with a balanced diet. Our guide provides the best foods to eat and avoid to improve your health and well-being.

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 16, 2024
May 17, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Metabolic health is important for overall health and well-being. It is your body’s ability to properly digest, process, and utilize nutrients from the foods you eat and turn them into energy. When metabolism isn’t functioning properly, this can lead to an array of health problems that, when combined, are referred to as metabolic syndrome. 

What is Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome, sometimes called syndrome X or MetS, is a condition that increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. 

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), metabolic syndrome is when you have three or more of the following conditions1:

  • waistline of more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men
  • blood pressure over 130/85 mm Hg
  • triglyceride level over 150 mg/dL
  • high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL) below 50 mg/dL for women and 40 mg/dL for men
  • fasting blood glucose levels greater than 100 mg/dL

Who is at Higher Risk for Metabolic Syndrome?

Some people have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Genetics may play a role in this, so your risk may be greater if you have family members who have it or meet any of its criteria. Insulin resistance and being overweight may also contribute to risk.2 

Other lifestyle factors like being physically inactive, eating a poor diet, not getting enough sleep, and chronic stress may also increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more: </strong> <a href="/blog/boost-metabolism">How to Speed Up Your Metabolism Naturally: 7 Ways</a>.</p>

Metabolic Syndrome Common Symptoms and Treatment 

Metabolic syndrome is often called a "silent" condition because people often don’t have noticeable symptoms. However, other health conditions can indicate metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and being overweight. People with insulin resistance may have acanthosis nigricans, a darkening of the skin on the back of the neck, in the armpits, and under the breasts.2

Your doctor may diagnose you with metabolic syndrome if you have the following:

  • Central obesity (body fat distributed around the abdomen)
  • BMI greater than 25
  • Elevated triglycerides
  • Low HDL cholesterol
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure) or are taking medicine to manage blood pressure
  • Elevated fasting blood glucose
  • Increased blood clotting
  • Insulin resistance

There are several things a doctor may recommend for the treatment of metabolic syndrome. These recommendations will be based on age, overall health, other comorbid conditions, how well medications and treatments can be tolerated, and most importantly, the preference and opinion of the patient. 

Some of these treatment options include:

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Dietary changes
  • Exercise
  • Weight loss
  • Prescription medications
  • Weight loss surgery

When metabolic syndrome goes untreated, type 2 diabetes may occur. Almost everyone who has metabolic syndrome also has insulin resistance. The body produces insulin to transport sugar (glucose) into cells for energy. Having excess body weight interferes with the way cells respond to insulin. The body must then produce more insulin to try to overcome the resistance, and when the body cannot produce enough, the blood sugar level increases. 

Other possible complications of untreated metabolic syndrome include heart disease, stroke, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), fatty liver, cholesterol gallstones, asthma, sleep problems, and some forms of cancer.2

Is It Hard to Lose Weight with Metabolic Syndrome?

Weight loss is difficult for many people but can be even harder for those with metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance interferes with the way the body processes glucose. Metabolic syndrome can also cause hormonal changes and altered metabolism, which can interfere with weight loss. 

Lifestyle changes, including better nutrition and frequent physical exercise, can help to improve metabolic health, increase insulin sensitivity, and promote weight loss. It may require more effort and maybe even some help from medication or surgery, but weight loss can be achieved even with metabolic syndrome.3 

Metabolic Syndrome Diet: 6 Foods You Should Eat

Making a few changes to your diet can help improve the symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Adding more of the following foods can help manage cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity, and help with weight management.4 

1. Foods rich in fiber 

High-fiber foods help regulate blood sugar levels by slowing digestion and delaying the release of sugar into the bloodstream. 

Fiber also promotes healthy cholesterol levels, lowering LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol. Fiber increases feelings of fullness and satiety, which may help reduce overall caloric intake and promote weight loss.5

Foods high in fiber include:

  • Whole grains (oats, brown rice, barley, 100% whole wheat bread and pasta)
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Broccoli
  • Berries
  • Pears
  • Avocado
  • Dried fruit
  • Other fruits and vegetables
person showing berries on it's hands

2. Plenty of fruits and vegetables 

Fruits and vegetables are low in calories but high in fiber and nutrients, which can help with weight management. They are also high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which may help reduce inflammation, improve blood pressure, and increase insulin sensitivity. These nutritious foods are also low in fat, which can help reduce saturated fat intake and the risk of heart disease.4 

3. Whole grains

Whole grains are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, all of which promote heart health, lower cholesterol, and manage blood sugars.4,5 

Examples of whole grains:

  • Whole wheat bread, pasta, and crackers
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Oats (steel-cut, rolled, or quick-cooking)
  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Popcorn
  • Wild rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Rye
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Farro
  • Teff
  • Amaranth
  • Kamut
  • Freekeh
  • Whole grain cornmeal or corn products
  • Whole grain tortilla

4. Omega-3 Fatty acids 

Research shows that consuming omega-3s can lower triglyceride levels, reduce inflammation, and improve insulin sensitivity, which is important for controlling blood sugar levels.4

Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines, and trout
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds and hempseed oil
  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans and soybean oil
  • Canola oil
  • Spinach
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Kale

5. Potassium 

Potassium-rich foods help reduce blood pressure and control blood sugar. When potassium levels are too low, the body may make less insulin. That could lead to high blood sugar. 

Studies show that people with low potassium levels release less insulin, have higher blood sugar levels, and are more likely to get type 2 diabetes than those with normal potassium levels.6

Sources of potassium include:

  • bananas
  • dates
  • oranges
  • grapefruit
  • cantaloupe
  • collard greens
  • edamame beans
  • black beans
  • lentils
  • mushrooms
  • potato with skin
  • tomatoes
  • oat bran

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6. Lean sources of protein 

Lean proteins can help regulate blood sugar levels, lower inflammation, and support weight loss.4

Sources of lean protein include:

  • Chicken breast
  • Turkey breast
  • Extra-lean beef (96/4)
  • Extra-lean bison
  • White fish
  • Egg whites
  • Protein powder (whey, casein, vegan)
  • Non/low-fat dairy (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, low-fat cheese)

Metabolic Syndrome Supplements

There are many supplements available that may help manage the symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Supplements should not be used to replace regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management techniques. Supplements should be used in conjunction with healthy lifestyle habits.7 

The following supplements could benefit metabolic syndrome: 

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids can help improve blood lipid levels, reduce inflammation, and lower blood pressure. 
  1. Magnesium: Magnesium plays a role in regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure. 
  1. Vitamin D: Low vitamin D levels have been associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, but supplements are also available for those who are deficient.
  1. Probiotics: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help to improve gut health and reduce inflammation. Some studies have shown that probiotics may help to improve blood sugar levels and reduce blood pressure in people with metabolic syndrome.10
  1. Fiber: Fiber can help to lower blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol levels, and promote weight loss. 

Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting any new supplements, especially if you are taking medication or have a pre-existing medical condition.

6 Foods to Avoid if You Have Metabolic Syndrome

1. Foods with added sugar

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of daily calorie intake. Excessive consumption of added sugars can increase the risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic disorders.8

Limit these sugar-containing foods:

  • corn syrup
  • sweets (candy, chocolate bars)
  • white bread
  • baked goods (cakes, cookies, doughnuts, pastries)
  • fruit juices
  • soda
  • sugary drinks

2. Saturated fat

Too much saturated can lead to elevated cholesterol and triglycerides. Elevated cholesterol levels are one of the hallmarks of metabolic syndrome. If you have metabolic syndrome, you may want to limit or avoid foods high in saturated fats. 

Foods high in saturated fats include: 

  • Fatty cuts of meat such as beef, pork, and lamb
  • Poultry with skin, such as chicken and turkey
  • High-fat dairy products such as cheese, butter, cream, and whole milk
  • Processed meats such as sausage, bacon, and hot dogs
  • Fried foods such as French fries and fried chicken
  • Fast food such as burgers and pizzas
  • Baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and pastries
  • Coconut oil and palm oil
  • Snack foods such as potato chips and crackers
  • Margarine and other spreads that contain hydrogenated oils

3. Trans fats

Trans fats have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, which can increase the risk of developing heart disease. Whether you have metabolic syndrome or want to prevent it, avoid trans fats and choose healthier alternatives. 

Food labels may not list trans fats directly, so it's important to read the ingredient list and look for partially hydrogenated oils, a source of trans fats.

Sources of trans fats include:

  • Fried foods such as doughnuts, fried chicken, and French fries
  • Baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and pastries
  • Processed snacks such as chips and crackers
  • Frozen foods such as pizzas, pies, and frozen dinners
  • Margarine and other spreads that contain partially hydrogenated oils
  • Non-dairy creamers and flavored coffee creamers
  • Shortening
  • Some types of fast food, such as fried chicken sandwiches and burgers

4. Alcohol

Excessive alcohol intake can have a negative impact on anyone’s health, but people with metabolic syndrome should be especially mindful of their alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to unwanted weight gain, high blood pressure, increased insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and abnormal lipid levels. 

5. High-sodium foods 

People with metabolic syndrome should limit their sodium intake because consuming too much sodium may increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. 

When you have metabolic syndrome and consume too much sodium, your body holds onto more water to maintain the right balance of electrolytes in the blood. This extra water increases blood volume, which then increases blood pressure. High blood pressure often damages the arterial walls, leading to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. It can also harm the kidneys.

The American Heart Association recommends that people with metabolic syndrome limit their sodium intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day, which is about 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt.1

Many processed foods, such as canned soups, frozen dinners, and packaged snacks, are high in sodium. Pay attention to labels and opt for “no salt added” or low-sodium varieties. 

6. Sugar-sweetened beverages

Excessive consumption of added sugars can increase insulin resistance and the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic disorders. If you have metabolic syndrome, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks, juice, and sugary coffee drinks.

One-Week Sample Metabolic Syndrome Meal Plan

diet table

Dietary Recommendations for Metabolic Syndrome 

A comprehensive review of scientific evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) are the best eating patterns for the management and prevention of metabolic syndrome.9

The Mediterranean diet is a plant-based diet characterized by a high intake of vegetables, including leafy green vegetables, fruits, whole-grain cereals, pulses, legumes, nuts, and extra virgin (cold pressed) olive oil (EVOO) as the main source of fat. This diet also includes moderate consumption of fish and poultry and low consumption of red meat, butter, sweets, pastries, and soft drinks. The Mediterranean diet provides 35 to 45 percent of total daily energy intake from fat, about 15 percent from protein, and 40 to 45 percent energy from carbohydrates.9

The DASH diet promotes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or fat-free dairy products, legumes, and nuts while limiting the intake of red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages. 

The DASH diet is relatively low-fat and especially low in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol (approximately 150 mg/d). Sodium intake is limited to 1500 to 2300 mg/day. The DASH diet recommends high intakes of fiber (more than 30g per day), potassium, magnesium, and calcium.9

Similarities between the Mediterranean and DASH diets include an emphasis on plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. They both limit the intake of red meat and saturated fat. 

Tips to Incorporate a Metabolic Syndrome Diet

Small changes have a big impact over time and tend to be more sustainable long term. Start by incorporating one or two of these tips into your daily routine and gradually add more as you feel more confident.

  • Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods
    Choose foods high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts, and seeds. 
  • Limit processed and packaged foods
    Processed and packaged foods are often high in sugar, saturated and trans fats, and sodium, all of which can worsen metabolic syndrome symptoms. Choose whole, fresh foods whenever possible.
  • Reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbs
    Candy, soda, and baked goods are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can cause blood sugar spikes and increase your risk of insulin resistance. Instead, choose fresh fruit, whole grains, and sweet vegetables like sweet potatoes or beets.
  • Choose healthy fats
    Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, but it's important to choose healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. These fats can help improve cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation in the body.
  • Be mindful of your portion sizes
    Eating too much can contribute to weight gain and other metabolic syndrome symptoms. Use smaller plates, measure portions, and listen to your body's hunger and fullness cues.
  • Cook at home whenever possible
    Cooking at home allows you to choose the ingredients and portion sizes of your meals. Try meal prepping on the weekends to have healthy, homemade meals ready throughout the week.
  • Stay hydrated
    Staying hydrated can help flush out toxins, regulate blood pressure, and support a healthy metabolism. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water daily, and limit your intake of sugary or caffeinated beverages.

How to Prevent Metabolic Syndrome

Some risk factors for metabolic syndrome, like age or genetics, cannot be changed. However, you can modify lifestyle behaviors. Maintaining a weight that is appropriate for you, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, managing stress, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and limiting alcohol intake can all help to prevent metabolic syndrome.2   

People Also Ask

What foods are good for metabolic syndrome?

  • Foods rich in fiber 
  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables 
  • Whole grains 
  • Omega-3 Fatty acids 
  • Potassium 
  • High protein foods 

What foods to stay away from if you have metabolic syndrome?

  • Added sugars
  • Saturated fat and trans fats
  • High-sodium foods
  • Alcohol
  • Soda
  • Red meat

Is it hard to lose weight with metabolic syndrome?

  • Weight loss is difficult for many people but can be even harder for those with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is often accompanied by insulin resistance, which interferes with how the body processes glucose. Metabolic syndrome can also cause hormonal changes and altered metabolism, which can interfere with weight loss.

How do you fix metabolic syndrome naturally?

  • Maintaining a weight that is appropriate for you, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, managing stress, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and limiting alcohol intake can all help to prevent or reverse metabolic syndrome.

Learn More About Metabolic Health with Signos’ Expert Advice

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<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading: </strong> <a href="/blog/which-exercise-boosts-metabolism">Exercises That Can Increase Your Metabolism</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Metabolic syndrome. www.heart.org. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/metabolic-syndrome 
  2. Swarup, S., Goyal, A., Grigorova, Y., & Zeltser, R. (2022). Metabolic Syndrome. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
  3. Abete, I., Astrup, A., Martínez, J. A., Thorsdottir, I., & Zulet, M. A. (2010). Obesity and the metabolic syndrome: role of different dietary macronutrient distribution patterns and specific nutritional components on weight loss and maintenance. Nutrition reviews, 68(4), 214–231. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00280.x
  4. Castro-Barquero, S., Ruiz-León, A. M., Sierra-Pérez, M., Estruch, R., & Casas, R. (2020). Dietary Strategies for Metabolic Syndrome: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients, 12(10), 2983. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12102983
  5. Chen JP, Chen GC, Wang XP, Qin L, Bai Y. Dietary Fiber and Metabolic Syndrome: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Related Mechanisms. Nutrients. 2017;10(1):24. Published 2017 Dec 26. doi:10.3390/nu10010024
  6. Binia, A., Jaeger, J., Hu, Y., Singh, A., & Zimmermann, D. (2015). Daily potassium intake and sodium-to-potassium ratio in the reduction of blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of hypertension, 33(8), 1509–1520. https://doi.org/10.1097/HJH.0000000000000611
  7. Patti AM, Al-Rasadi K, Giglio RV, et al. Natural approaches in metabolic syndrome management. Arch Med Sci. 2018;14(2):422-441. doi:10.5114/aoms.2017.68717
  8. Current dietary guidelines. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials | Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials
  9. Castro-Barquero, S., Ruiz-León, A. M., Sierra-Pérez, M., Estruch, R., & Casas, R. (2020). Dietary Strategies for Metabolic Syndrome: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients, 12(10), 2983. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12102983
  10. Tenorio-Jiménez, C., Martínez-Ramírez, M. J., Gil, Á., & Gómez-Llorente, C. (2020). Effects of Probiotics on Metabolic Syndrome: A Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials. Nutrients, 12(1), 124. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010124

About the author

Victoria Whittington earned her Bachelor of Science in Food and Nutrition from the University of Alabama and has over 10 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

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