It’s hardly news that a diet heavy in meat and fried foods is bad for your health. It’s a combination that’s linked with a greater risk of obesity, heart disease, and breast and colon cancers.
But now there’s another reason to pass on the burger and fries. According to a new study, a typical Western diet rich in meat, fried foods and refined grains increases the likelihood of having metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors that increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
What’s more, washing down your meal with a sugar-free drink doesn’t seem to offset the damage – diet soft drinks also increased the risk.
A person is thought to have metabolic syndrome if he or she has a large waist size plus two or more of the following: high blood triglycerides (blood fat), high blood pressure, elevated fasting blood glucose and low HDL (so-called good) cholesterol.
Having metabolic syndrome is thought to double the risk of heart attack and increase the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes fivefold.
While excess calories, too little exercise, and weight gain underlie most cases of the syndrome, the role certain foods play in its development is not well understood.
In the study, published last month by Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, researchers evaluated the diets of 9,514 healthy men and women aged 45 to 64. Participants’ dietary patterns were categorized as either “Western” or “prudent.”
A Western diet was heavy on red and processed meats, refined grains, fried foods and soft drinks. A “prudent” diet favoured vegetables, whole grains, fish, seafood and low-fat dairy products.
After nine years of follow-up, 40 per cent of participants developed metabolic syndrome. Among individuals who adhered to a Western eating pattern, those who had the highest intake of these types of foods were 18 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome compared with those who ate less of them. In contrast, the prudent eating pattern was not significantly related to the development of metabolic syndrome.
Specific foods were also linked with an increased risk. Eating two servings of meat a day – equivalent to two small hamburger patties – boosted the risk of metabolic syndrome 26 per cent. Hamburger, hot dogs and processed meats were most strongly tied to a greater risk.
Researchers suspect that saturated fats in meat play a role by raising blood cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes risk. People with the highest intake of fried foods were 25 per cent more likely to develop metabolic syndrome.
Surprisingly, sugary beverages were not linked with metabolic syndrome in this study, but diet soft drinks were. Individuals who consumed the most diet pop were 34 per cent more likely to develop the syndrome than those who drank the least.
This isn’t the first study to link artificially sweetened soft drinks with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. Recent data from the Framingham Heart Study found a 56 per cent greater risk among those who drink at least one serving of diet pop a day.
Animal research suggests that artificial sweeteners impair the body’s ability to predict the calorie content of food and may lead to overeating and weight gain. It’s also possible that, because there are no calories in diet pop, people feel less guilty eating an extra cookie or slice of cake.
Dairy products, on the other hand, offered protection with individuals consuming the most having a 13 per cent lower risk of developing the syndrome. Previous studies have linked dairy to a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Research suggests that one-third of Canadian men and women aged 40 to 60 have metabolic syndrome, a number that’s expected to rise as obesity rates climb.
The following strategies can help lower the risk of developing metabolic syndrome – and guard against heart disease and Type 2 diabetes if you already have it:
Lose excess weight
Shedding weight can reduce blood pressure and fasting blood glucose, and raise HDL cholesterol. Trials have demonstrated that modest weight loss (5- to 7-per-cent body weight) and 150 minutes of exercise a week can prevent Type 2 diabetes in obese people with impaired fasting blood glucose. (Impaired fasting glucose, a precursor to diabetes, is a blood sugar reading taken 8 to 12 hours after a fast that’s higher than normal but not yet diabetic.)
Eat less meat
If red meat is eaten, choose lean cuts (tenderloin, flank steak, sirloin) and limit portion size to less than 90 grams a day. Choose fish, poultry, legumes, tofu and soy foods more often. Limit intake of processed meats such as hot dogs, sausage, deli meats and bacon.
Limit fatty foods
Foods high in saturated fat – cheese, cream, ice cream, butter, fatty meats – contribute to metabolic syndrome by boosting blood pressure, body weight and diabetes risk.
Choose low-fat dairy
Low-fat milk and yogurt (1 per cent milk fat or less) may guard against metabolic syndrome by providing calcium and magnesium, minerals that help promote normal blood pressure and regulate blood sugar. Include two to three servings a day.
Go for whole grain
Previous research has linked a regular intake of whole grain foods with reduced blood pressure, triglycerides and body weight, a lower risk of diabetes, and with increased HDL cholesterol.
Most often, choose 100-per-cent whole grain breads, cereals and pastas. Whole grains include whole wheat, whole rye, oats, flaxseed, brown rice, quinoa and millet.
A Mediterranean-style diet
Studies suggest that increasing your daily intake of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, fish and olive oil can help you lose weight and improve blood sugar control and blood vessel function in people with metabolic syndrome.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based
dietitian at the Medcan Clinic,
is on CTV’s Canada AM every Wednesday. Visit her website at lesliebeck.com.
Get a healthy dinner on the table tonight with Leslie Beck’s ginger-orange chicken and vegetable stir-fry. Find the recipe at globeandmail.com/life Leslie Beck, Globe & Mail