Choices. Life is full of them. And many choices affect our health: Will you choose pizza at that post-game dinner or salad with grilled chicken? Do you flop down in front of the TV after school or work out?
Every year scientists discover more about how the choices we make today have a direct impact on the way our bodies function in the future. This definitely applies to a condition known as metabolic syndrome.
What Exactly Is Metabolic Syndrome?
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of problems that health experts call "risk factors." People need to have three or more of the following risk factors before doctors consider them to have metabolic syndrome:
excessive belly fat (having an "apple-shaped" body)
high blood pressure
abnormal levels of blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides
high blood sugar
High blood pressure and cholesterol problems might seem like things only old people grumble about. But that's not so anymore. The chances of developing these problems go up if someone is overweight, and many kids and teens fall into this category. Nearly 1 in 10 teens — and more than a third of obese teens — have metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic Syndrome Is an Early Warning Sign
Metabolic syndrome isn't a disease. In fact, people who have it usually feel perfectly fine. But metabolic syndrome is a signal that someone could be on the road to serious health problems.
Diagnosing metabolic syndrome helps health professionals figure out a person's risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or other diseases. It's kind of like a storm warning: If you hear a hurricane is headed your way, you're going to tune in to weather alerts and do what you can to stay safe. In the same way, finding out that you have metabolic syndrome can help you take steps to prevent diseases like heart disease or type 2 diabetes down the road.
If you have metabolic syndrome, you probably won't know about it until a health professional tells you.
Doctors don't evaluate everyone for metabolic syndrome. Your doctor is less likely to be concerned about it if you are fit and healthy. But if your health provider thinks you're overweight or gaining weight too fast, he or she may consider metabolic syndrome a possibility. That's especially true if you have family members with heart problems or other weight-related diseases.
If someone has one of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome, like high blood pressure, a doctor may check for the others, too.
Checking for metabolic syndrome mostly involves stuff your doctor would be doing anyway, like taking your blood pressure and calculating your body mass index (BMI). If these are high, the doctor also might run blood tests to check out blood sugar and fat levels.
Why Do People Get Metabolic Syndrome?
Being overweight seems to play a major role in metabolic syndrome. Genes do, too. Some people have a genetic tendency to some metabolic syndrome risk factors, like high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
The risk of developing metabolic syndrome appears to be highest around puberty. That may be because body fat, blood pressure, and lipids are all affected by the hormones that bring about growth and development.
The good news is that you can do many things to help keep yourself from getting the health problems that metabolic syndrome can lead to.
In the case of metabolic syndrome, making a couple of lifestyle changes is the best way to keep yourself on a track to good health. Here are the top ones:
Drop excess pounds. If you're overweight, even a moderate amount of weight loss can bring about big improvements in your blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and your body's ability to use insulin.
Stop sitting and start moving. Take one of those hours you spend in front of a screen and spend it on something that gets your blood flowing. Even a 30-minute walk each day can dramatically improve how insulin works in your body, and help your blood pressure and blood lipid levels.
Eat mindfully. Don't just chow down — think of food as fuel. That doesn't mean boring eating, it just means making an effort to get the right foods into your diet. For example: Choose complex instead of simple carbs (that is, whole-grain bread instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice). Get more fiber by eating more beans, fruits, and vegetables. Choose more foods with "healthy" fats like olive oil and nuts, and avoid too many empty calories from soda and sweets.
Don't smoke. No surprise here — it's just about the worst thing you can do for your heart and lungs.
It can be hard to take this stuff seriously when your thirties and forties seem like a world away. But think about what you want your life to look like then. Maybe you see a family, good friends, a home, a career, perhaps a pet or two. What you probably don't see is having to live with the daily effects of diabetes or heart disease. So why not do whatever you can now to keep those problems from happening later?