PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
The metabolic syndrome refers to a clustering of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors whose underlying pathophysiology may be related to insulin resistance. Metabolic syndrome is also associated with an increased risk of some common cancers.
However, there is uncertainty as to whether all patients with the syndrome are indeed insulin-resistant, so the aetiology has been broadened to include concepts of obesity, adipose tissue disorders and other factors.
Metabolic syndrome is common in adults and can also occur in obese children. Metabolic syndrome can also occur in lean individuals, suggesting that obesity is a marker for the syndrome, not a cause.
There have been various definitions of the metabolic syndrome since 1998. The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and American Heart Association (AHA) definition in 2009 was as follows:
Any three (or more) of the following factors constitute a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome:
- Increased waist circumference: ethnicity-specific - eg, Caucasian men ≥94 cm and women ≥80 cm; South Asian men ≥90 cm and women ≥80 cm.
- If body mass index is over 30 kg/m2, central obesity can be assumed and waist circumference does not need to be measured.
- Raised triglycerides:
- >150 mg/dL (1·7 mmol/L).
- Or specific treatment for this lipid abnormality.
- Reduced HDL-cholesterol:
- <40 mg/dL (1·03 mmol/L) in men.
- <50 mg/dL (1·29 mmol/L) in women.
- Or specific treatment for this lipid abnormality.
- Raised blood pressure:
- Systolic ≥130 mm Hg.
- Diastolic ≥85 mm Hg.
- Or treatment of previously diagnosed hypertension.
- Raised fasting plasma glucose:
- Fasting plasma glucose ≥100 mg/dL (5·6 mmol/L).
- Most people with type 2 diabetes will have metabolic syndrome based on these criteria.
The IDF proposed a definition for children and adolescents in 2007:
- Aged 6-9 years: waist circumference 90th percentile; however, metabolic syndrome cannot be diagnosed but further measurements should be made if there is a family history of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidaemia, CVD, hypertension and/or obesity.
- Aged 10-15 years: waist circumference ≥90th percentile or adult cut-off if lower:
- Triglycerides ≥1.7 mmol/L (≥150 mg/dL), HDL-C <1.03 mmol/L (<40 mg/dL)
- Systolic blood pressure ≥130 or diastolic blood pressure ≥85 mm Hg
- Fasting blood glucose ≥5.6 mmol/L (100 mg/dL)
- Aged 16+ years: use existing IDF criteria for adults.
How useful is the concept of metabolic syndrome?
More recently, the usefulness of the 'metabolic syndrome' concept has been questioned - at least in so far as clinical practice is concerned.
There have been mixed results from studies examining metabolic syndrome's comparative ability in predicting CVD and type 2 diabetes over traditional risk models. Despite this, the term metabolic syndrome continues to be used both in clinical practice and in research.
Although the metabolic syndrome appears to have limited utility for the identification of individuals at increased risk of type 2 diabetes or CVD, the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome presents an opportunity to deliver co-ordinated care to those with metabolic syndrome.
Some studies have found significant association with metabolic syndrome - eg, can identify people with diabetes without prior CVD who have a lower risk of future cardiovascular events.
- Metabolic syndrome is a growing epidemic throughout the world. Approximately 1 adult in every 4 or 5, depending on the country, has metabolic syndrome.
- The incidence increases with age; it has been estimated that in people over 50 years of age, metabolic syndrome affects more than 40% of the population in the USA and nearly 30% in Europe.
- The worldwide prevalence of obesity has doubled in a period of two decades. The prevalence of obesity and metabolic syndrome varies between different countries and ethnic groups.
There are many different factors that contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. Genetics, lifestyle (such as diet and physical activity), obesity and insulin resistance can all play a role. However, insulin resistance is thought to play a major role in connecting the different components of metabolic syndrome and adding to the syndrome's development. Elevated free fatty acids and abnormal adipokine profiles can result in insulin resistance and can contribute to the pathogenesis of metabolic syndrome.
- Management of the underlying risk factors for CVD and diabetes (see 'Lifestyle advice for people with metabolic syndrome', below).
- Treatment of any established disease such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
- Evaluation and treatment of all CVD risk factors without regard to whether a patient meets the criteria for diagnosis of the metabolic syndrome.
CVD risk factors to evaluate and treat
- Lifestyle - smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet.
- Adverse lipid profile.
Unalterable risk factors are age, sex, race, family history.
Lifestyle advice for people with metabolic syndrome
Lifestyle modifications are effective in resolving metabolic syndrome and reducing the severity of related abnormalities (fasting blood glucose, waist circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and triglycerides) in people with metabolic syndrome.
- An increase in overall levels of sustained physical activity and avoidance of prolonged sedentary behaviour are important for reduction of CVD risk.
- Emphasise walking, cycling and other aerobic physical daily activities, at moderate intensity, as part of an active lifestyle, for at least 150 minutes per week in bouts of at least ten minutes, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of the two.
- Muscle-strengthening activities performed on at least two occasions per week.
- Exercise training, incorporating a warm-up and cool-down period, should be performed at moderate to high intensity two to three times per week for 30-40 minutes each time.
- The mode of exercise should be aerobic and where possible, continuous, allowing for a steady progression in effort - eg, walking programmes, cycling, jogging, swimming.
- The time spent exercise training contributes to meeting the 150 minutes per week of physical activity recommendation.
- Consume five portions per day of fruit and vegetables.
- Consume at least two servings of fish (preferably oily) per week.
- Consider regular consumption of whole grains and nuts..
- There is evidence showing that subjects adherent to a Mediterranean diet have lower prevalence and incidence rates of metabolic syndrome than those non-adherent.
- 'Low fat' is too simplistic and may even be detrimental. The composition of dietary fats is more important.
- Keep intake of saturated fat to less than 10% of total fat intake (preferably in lean meat and low-fat dairy products).
- Replace saturated fat with poly-unsaturated fat where possible.
- Avoid 'trans fats' (often labelled as 'hydrogenated' or 'partially hydrogenated' vegetable oils) as they are harmful and linked to cardiovascular disease.
- Avoid/reduce consumption of processed meats or commercially produced foods which tend to be high in salt and trans fatty acids.
- Increase the proportion of mono-unsaturated fats (eg, olive oil).
- Increase the amount of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) compared with a Western diet.
- Carbohydrates: avoid or reduce consumption of refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, processed cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, and calorie-rich but nutritionally poor snacks, such as sweets, cakes and crisps.
- Keep salt consumption below 6 g per day.
Other lifestyle factors
- Smoking cessation.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
- The manifestations and complications of metabolic syndrome should be treated according to established guidelines for the treatment of hyperlipidaemia, CVD, hypertension and diabetes. This may therefore involve the use of:
- Low-dose aspirin.
- Statins and/or fibrates.
- Antidiabetic drugs.
See also separate Managing Impaired Glucose Tolerance in Primary Care article.
Regular follow-up to monitor progress in reducing cardiovascular risk and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Further reading & references
- Esposito K, Chiodini P, Colao A, et al; Metabolic syndrome and risk of cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2012 Nov;35(11):2402-11. doi: 10.2337/dc12-0336.
- de la Iglesia R, Loria-Kohen V, Zulet MA, et al; Dietary Strategies Implicated in the Prevention and Treatment of Metabolic Syndrome. Int J Mol Sci. 2016 Nov 10;17(11). pii: E1877.
- Weiss R, Bremer AA, Lustig RH; What is metabolic syndrome, and why are children getting it? Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2013 Apr;1281:123-40. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12030. Epub 2013 Jan 28.
- Alberti KG, Eckel RH, Grundy SM, et al; Harmonizing the metabolic syndrome: a joint interim statement of the International Diabetes Federation Task Force on Epidemiology and Prevention; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; American Heart Association; World Heart Federation; International Atherosclerosis Society; and International Association for the Study of Obesity. Circulation. 2009 Oct 20;120(16):1640-5. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192644. Epub 2009 Oct 5.
- Zimmet P, Alberti G, Kaufman F, et al; The metabolic syndrome in children and adolescents. Lancet. 2007 Jun 23;369(9579):2059-61.
- Amihaesei IC, Chelaru L; Metabolic syndrome a widespread threatening condition; risk factors, diagnostic criteria, therapeutic options, prevention and controversies: an overview. Rev Med Chir Soc Med Nat Iasi. 2014 Oct-Dec;118(4):896-900.
- Lam DW, LeRoith D; Metabolic Syndrome. Endotext. May 2015.
- Taslim S, Tai ES; The relevance of the metabolic syndrome. Ann Acad Med Singapore. 2009 Jan;38(1):29-5.
- Scott R, Donoghoe M, Watts GF, et al; Impact of metabolic syndrome and its components on cardiovascular disease event rates in 4900 patients with type 2 diabetes assigned to placebo in the FIELD randomised trial. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2011 Nov 21;10:102. doi: 10.1186/1475-2840-10-102.
- Canale MP, Manca di Villahermosa S, Martino G, et al; Obesity-related metabolic syndrome: mechanisms of sympathetic overactivity. Int J Endocrinol. 2013;2013:865965. doi: 10.1155/2013/865965. Epub 2013 Oct 31.
- Misra A, Shrivastava U; Obesity and dyslipidemia in South Asians. Nutrients. 2013 Jul 16;5(7):2708-33. doi: 10.3390/nu5072708.
- Lipid modification - cardiovascular risk assessment and the modification of blood lipids for the prevention of primary and secondary cardiovascular disease; NICE Clinical Guideline (July 2014)
- Report of the Joint British Societies for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease; JBS3, 2014
- Yamaoka K, Tango T; Effects of lifestyle modification on metabolic syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Med. 2012 Nov 14;10:138. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-10-138.
- Grosso G, Mistretta A, Marventano S, et al; Beneficial Effects of the Mediterranean Diet on Metabolic Syndrome. Curr Pharm Des. 2013 Dec 5.
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Dr Naomi Hartree
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr John Cox