Explainer: What is metabolic syndrome?

This condition ups a person’s risk of heart disease and diabetes

Kids and teens who consume too many soft drinks and other sugary foods may gain weight and end up with an “adult” problem known as metabolic syndrome.

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Many people slurp sodas, munch candy and chow down on pizza more often than they should. The body needs the sugar and fat in foods to fuel muscles and other bodily systems. But too much and a person can suffer. In some people, a “couch potato” lifestyle can even lead to life-threatening diseases. These include heart disease and diabetes, a condition that affects how the body processes sugar.

Doctors can check for signs someone is likely to develop these diseases. Enough of those symptoms can signal that someone has developed metabolic syndrome. This person may not have heart disease or diabetes yet, but they will have at least three of the following conditions. Each is a red flag that should alert someone that a lifestyle change is called for.

  • Obesity: When people eat too much and don’t exercise enough, they gain weight. One way doctors measure whether people have a healthy weight is by calculating their body mass index, or BMI. All someone needs to calculate this is have a person’s height and weight. BMI can signal not only whether someone has a weight problem, but also how severe it is. Obesity is the most obvious warning sign in metabolic syndrome. It’s also the one that troubles people most. “Our [overweight] patients get bullied and teased,” notes Melanie Cree-Green. She is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
  • High blood pressure: Blood carries nutrients through the body. An overweight person has a bigger body, so the heart needs to pump more blood. This extra blood presses hard on the walls of the blood vessels. High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks and other heart problems.
  • Blood sugar problems: The body breaks down food into its building blocks, such as proteins, fats and sugars. A hormone called insulin helps move glucose — a simple sugar also known as blood sugar — from the blood into cells. But in overweight people, insulin often stops doing its job properly. Scientists don’t yet know why. When insulin stops working well, glucose can start to get stuck in the blood. This can lead to a dangerous condition known as insulin resistance. It is a sign the body is at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. That disease can lead to blindness, the loss of digits (such as toes) or limbs (an arm or leg), kidney problems, heart problems — even death. People with diabetes often take shots of insulin to control levels of glucose in their blood.
  • Too much bad fat: A person’s liver normally takes extra sugar and turns it into fats called triglycerides (Try-GLIS-ur-ides). If too many of these fats build up, though, they start to gunk up the inside of the liver. This can lead to a serious condition known as fatty liver disease. A person with this disease may notice dark patches on the skin of the neck or arms, or feel pain on the upper right side of the belly where the liver is located. Blood vessels may get blocked by the bad fats. This can make heart disease more likely.
  • Too little good cholesterol: Cholesterol is a waxy substance similar to fat. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the “bad” type because it can build up inside blood vessels. Many fatty foods such as French fries or pizza deliver this cholesterol into the body. The body itself also makes this type of cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is the “good” type. It helps mop up the bad stuff, freeing up the blood vessels again. Having a healthy amount of HDL cholesterol can help protect someone from heart attacks and stroke.

Some measures of metabolic syndrome also consider two additional symptoms: blood clots and inflammation, which can be measured through blood tests.

In the past, doctors considered metabolic syndrome to be an “adult” problem. Kids and teens didn’t usually end up with any of the conditions, which can be warning signs of the syndrome. But that is changing. Today, obesity is on the rise among kids. So some are now developing metabolic syndrome and related diseases.

Cree-Green notes that the cure for metabolic syndrome is well understood. Patients must eat healthier food, get more sleep and spend less time sitting around. “I think figuring out how to exercise is the most important thing,” she says.

Kathryn Hulick is a freelance science writer and the author of Strange But True: 10 of the World's Greatest Mysteries Explained, a book about the science of ghosts, aliens and more. She loves hiking, gardening and robots.

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