NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – People with metabolic syndrome — a cluster of risk factors for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes — have a better chance of reversing it if they stick to a healthy diet, a new study shows.
While it seems obvious that eating healthy would make you healthier, the findings are important because they show it’s a person’s dietary pattern, not just individual components of their diet, that matters, Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, an expert on diet and heart health from Tufts University in Boston, who was not involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
A person is considered to have metabolic syndrome if they have three or more of the following risk factors: excess belly fat; high triglyceride levels (a harmful blood fat); low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol; high blood pressure; and either high blood sugar levels or type 2 diabetes.
According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), having metabolic syndrome doubles a person’s risk of heart disease and quintuples their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Nearly a quarter of US adults have the metabolic syndrome.
In the current study, Dr. Tasnime N. Akbaraly of University College London and her colleagues looked at whether sticking closely to the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) could help reverse metabolic syndrome.
The AHEI is a set of nutritional guidelines published by Harvard School of Public Health researchers in 2002. The guidelines emphasize eating whole grains rather than refined grains, white meat rather than red meat, and lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and soy. Studies have shown that following the guidelines helps cut the risk of chronic disease in both men and women.
Akbaraly and her colleagues studied 339 people with metabolic syndrome participating in the Whitehall II study, a long-running study investigating social determinants of health in British civil servants. Just over a quarter of the participants were women, and participants’ average age was 56.
After five years, nearly half no longer had the metabolic syndrome. People who adhered the most closely to the AHEI, the researchers found, were nearly twice as likely to have reversed their metabolic syndrome.
For people with central obesity, defined as waist circumference above 102 centimeters (40 inches) for men and 88 centimeters (35 inches) for women, those with the healthiest diets were nearly three times as likely to have recovered from metabolic syndrome than those with the unhealthiest eating patterns; healthy eating also had a somewhat stronger effect for people who started out with high levels of harmful triglycerides.
“It’s not about focusing on individual components of the diet,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s really the whole package, and that becomes important because it means that if one of the components of a healthy diet is to eat more fruits and vegetables, just buying a pill saying that there’s a concentrated extract of fruits and vegetables is probably not what’s going to help you.”
“It doesn’t mean if you sprinkle wheat germ on your hot fudge sundae you’re going to get the benefits of whole grains,” she added.
In addition to eating well, Lichtenstein said, people shouldn’t forget that regular physical activity is also a key component of maintaining heart health.