Metabolic syndrome, also called syndrome X, is a combination of conditions that raises your risk of diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

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

  • midsection obesity, with a waistline 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) — the “good” cholesterol — below 50 mg/dL for women and 40 mg/dL for men
  • fasting blood glucose levels greater than 100 mg/dL

The AHA estimates that almost 23 percent of adults in the United States have metabolic syndrome. The good news is that you can reduce your risk and even reverse metabolic syndrome with healthy daily lifestyle choices.

A few tweaks to your diet can help you:

  • lose weight
  • control blood pressure
  • balance cholesterol levels
  • keep your blood glucose levels stable

In fact, doctors recommend diet and exercise changes as the first call to action for metabolic syndrome. Even if you’re on medication, these simple lifestyle changes are vital for a healthy outcome.

Sugary foods

Sugary foods include simple, refined carbohydrates. A low-carbohydrate diet may help you lose weight and improve blood sugar control. It may also help prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Sugar is often disguised by its chemical names in foods and drinks. Look for ingredients that end in -ose. For example, table sugar may be listed by its chemical name sucrose. Other sugars are:

  • glucose
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • levulose
  • maltose

Reduce the following refined and processed carbohydrates in your diet:

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

Artificial sweeteners

A small study found that consuming large amounts of diet drinks and artificially sweetened food may raise blood sugar levels and could increase your risk for diabetes. Avoid sweeteners such as:

  • aspartame
  • sucralose
  • saccharin

Trans fats

Trans fats are common in artificial partially hydrogenated oils. Most are added to processed foods to give them a longer shelf life. Trans fats may raise unhealthy cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

This harmful fat is also linked to type 2 diabetes. Reduce your risk by avoiding foods such as:

  • deep-fried foods
  • packaged biscuits and cookies
  • margarine
  • microwave popcorn with artificial butter
  • crackers
  • potato chips
  • frozen pizza
  • frozen fries
  • pies and pastries
  • vegetable shortening
  • cake mixes and frosting
  • frozen dinners
  • nondairy creamers

Sodium

A 2015 meta-analysis found that reducing sodium in your food can help lower blood pressure. Consuming too much sodium can raise blood pressure.

Salt contains sodium, but foods that don’t taste salty can also be high in sodium. You need less than 1/4 teaspoon of salt a day. Limit added table salt and foods that have high amounts of sodium, such as:

  • table salt, sea salt, Himalayan salt, kosher salt
  • potato chips
  • salted nuts
  • smoked or cured meats and fish
  • salted butter and margarine
  • frozen dinners
  • canned vegetables
  • prepared pasta sauces and salsa
  • salad dressings and marinades
  • soy sauce
  • cheese
  • packaged rice, potato, and pasta mixes
  • canned soup
  • instant noodles
  • ketchup and mustard
  • boxed cereals
  • pudding and cake mixes

Fiber-rich foods

Adding more fiber to your diet can help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Fiber reduces low-density lipoprotein levels (LDL). LDL is known as “bad cholesterol.” Fiber can also help balance blood sugar levels. Women should eat at least 25 grams of fiber per day and men should eat at least 38 grams of fiber per day.

Suggested fibrous foods include:

  • fresh and frozen fruit
  • dried fruit
  • fresh and frozen vegetables
  • oats
  • barley
  • dried beans
  • lentils
  • brown rice
  • quinoa
  • couscous
  • bran
  • whole-grain bread and pasta
  • cinnamon powder

Potassium

Potassium-rich foods help balance blood pressure. This heart-healthy mineral helps counter the effects of sodium, which raises blood pressure. Add these high-potassium foods to your diet:

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

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids help raise HDL cholesterol levels. They also help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. These healthy fats can be found in some fish and other foods, such as:

  • flax seeds
  • chia seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • olive oil
  • pine nuts
  • walnuts
  • almonds
  • navy beans
  • avocados
  • salmon
  • sardines
  • tuna
  • mackerel
  • trout

Talk to your doctor about adding supplements to your daily diet to help beat metabolic syndrome. You may benefit from the following supplements:

  • For blood sugar: chromium supplements
  • For cholesterol: psyllium fiber, niacin or vitamin B-3 complex supplements, omega-3 fatty acid supplements
  • For blood pressure: potassium supplements
  • For blood pressure and cholesterol: garlic supplements

Keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t monitor the purity or quality of supplements like they do for drugs. Some supplements may interfere with medication you’re currently taking as well. Get the all-clear from your doctor before you begin taking supplements.

Here’s a three-day sample meal plan for metabolic syndrome:

Breakfast Lunch Dinner
Day 1Bowl of steel-cut oats cooked in water and almond milk. Sweeten with apple slices and stevia. Add chopped walnuts and a sprinkle of cinnamon.Whole-grain pita wrap with grilled chicken, spinach leaves, onions, tomatoes, and hummus. Flavor with yogurt, tahini, and hot sauce.Grilled or baked wild-caught salmon over brown rice or barley. Add a side of steamed spinach flavored with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pine nuts, and ground pepper.
Day 2Eggs scrambled in unsalted butter with green onions, mushrooms, and zucchini. Flavor with ground pepper and dried oregano. Add a side of sweet potato hash browns. (Microwave a sweet potato until soft, cut into cubes, and brown in olive oil.)Salad bowl with greens, red onions, beets, bell pepper, cucumber, and apples. Drizzle homemade salad dressing made with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, orange juice, and herbs. Top with roasted chickpeas and walnuts. Eggplant, zucchini, and whole-grain pasta casserole. Make the pasta sauce with fresh tomatoes or a can of unsalted chopped tomatoes. Flavor with ground pepper and fresh or dried herbs.
Day 3Breakfast smoothie bowl made by blending half an avocado, berries, a banana, and Greek yogurt. Top with chia seeds and sliced almonds.Lentil soup with whole-grain bread. Add a side salad of greens and vegetables with a drizzle of olive oil, vinegar, garlic flakes, and pepper.Grilled chicken breast with roasted vegetables such as squash, bell peppers, and potatoes with the skin on. Flavor with unsalted butter, ground pepper, and dried herbs.

A healthy diet for metabolic syndrome is healthy for your whole family. It replaces most processed, packaged foods with nutritious, whole foods. It should be a consistent lifestyle choice, not a temporary diet.

Cook simple foods at home, such as grilled chicken or fish. Add different vegetables and whole-grain sides. Enjoy fruit desserts that are naturally sweetened.

At restaurants, ask your server what kinds of oil foods are cooked in. Let them know you’re avoiding trans fats. Also request low-sodium and low-sugar options.

Read the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods when shopping.

Other tips

A healthy lifestyle for metabolic syndrome also includes regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and dealing with stress well.

Practice mindful eating. A three-year study linked eating too quickly with an increase in metabolic syndrome. This may happen because eating too much or the wrong types of food is more likely when eating quickly or on the go.

To eat more slowly, avoid eating in front of the television or computer. Eat at the dinner table with family or friends whenever possible.