FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Diet and the Metabolic Syndrome

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low carb (Photo credit: daBinsi)

A low carbohydrate diet may help to curb the symptoms of a metabolic disorder called Metabolic Syndrome.  So far diet has not been thought of as a remedy for this disorder, and research has been sparse.

What exactly is the metabolic syndrome? Over 50 million Americans are estimated to have this condition that is characterized by a group of factors that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  These factors include:

  • Insulin resistance or glucose intolerance that causes high blood glucose
  • Abdominal obesity
  • High blood triglycerides
  • High LDL cholesterol
  • Low HDL cholesterol
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Increased inflammatory blood proteins (e.g. C-reactive protein)
  • Higher concentration of oxidized LDL cholesterol

So far, the diagnoses of Metabolic Syndrome has not been clearly defined..  According to the American Heart Association (AHA) it is suggested that if 3 or more of the above criteria is present, a diagnosis of Metabolic Syndrome can be concluded.

At the present time, the AHA suggests lifestyle modifications that focus on weight loss, decreased dietary fat intake, and increased physical activity is fundamental to decreasing the health risks associated with this syndrome

However, a recent study helps to confirm that diet is effective against the syndrome, but instead of a low-fat diet, the results indicate that a lower carbohydrate may be helpful.

This study included 20 men and women with metabolic syndrome and instructed them to follow a low carb diet similar to the South Beach diet.  Phase One lasted two weeks and patients consumed a low carb diet that included 10% of calories.  Then in Phase Two lasting 10 weeks, participants were told to increase carb intake to 27% of calories.

Bottom Line Results:  Weight loss occurred but was only on average about 10 pounds in the three-month study.  The authors found that people did not follow the diets strictly (often a problem in real life nutrition studies).  For example, Phase One resulted in 25% carbohydrates (on average) and in Phase Two, 35%.  But it was a reduction from the participant’s pre-study diet of about 47%.

The study determined hormone levels associated with appetite and food intake such as insulin, leptin, and cholecystokinin (CCK). They saw a decrease in insulin and leptin levels by the end of phase one.  By the end of phase two, insulin levels rose to baseline but the leptin levels did not rise to baseline levels. These hormones act together to help reduce food intake.

Nevertheless, the authors report that by the end of the study, about 50% of the participants no longer met the criteria of the Metabolic Syndrome. The topic  is a hot debate in the diet world. A number of clinical controlled trials have demonstrated that overweight or obese people who follow a lower carbohydrate diet are successful with weight loss if they comply with the diet.   This study focused on the metabolic syndrome so the outcomes may be different in people not considered to have this condition.  The study design in this case appeared to be sound, however. The study was published in the Journal of Nutrition and it should be noted that the study was small  and as with all nutrition studies, more research is needed.

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