Skip to main content
Metabolic Syndrome Blog

The incidence of metabolic syndrome is rapidly rising in North America, with an estimated prevalence of 18-23% among Canadian adults. This is concerning due to the increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes associated with metabolic syndrome. Therefore, let’s explore preventive measures to combat the development of metabolic syndrome, as prevention is always the optimal strategy.

Metabolic Syndrome is diagnosed when an individual exhibits three or more of the following conditions:

  • Abdominal obesity (waist circumference >102cm for men and >88cm for women)
  • Elevated plasma triglycerides (>1.7 mmol/L)
  • Reduced high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels (<1.03 mmol/L for men and <1.3 mmol/L for women)
  • Increased blood pressure (>130/85 mmHg)
  • High fasting glucose level (>6.1 mmol/L)

Distinguishing Simple Carbohydrates from Complex Carbohydrates

There is a common misconception that carbohydrates should be avoided for better health and energy levels. However, let’s not demonize carbohydrates! They are the primary energy source for our bodies and provide crucial fiber to support gut health. The key is to consume the right type of carbohydrates and avoid excessive carbohydrate consumption which can lead to various health issues.

Simple carbohydrates, comprising monosaccharide sugars like glucose, fructose, and galactose as well as disaccharide sugars like sucrose (glucose-fructose), lactose (glucose-galactose), and maltose (glucose-glucose), are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream from the digestive tract and cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates present in legumes, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables consist of longer, complex chains of sugar molecules that are digested more slowly, preventing sudden blood sugar spikes. Moreover, complex carbohydrates are excellent sources of dietary fiber, promoting digestive health and maintaining optimal cholesterol levels.

Understanding Insulin Responses

Upon consuming carbohydrates, whether simple or complex, our bodies release insulin to facilitate the transfer of glucose from the blood into cells for energy production. The magnitude of the insulin response is directly proportional to the rise in blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates prompt a sharp insulin spike due to their rapid impact on blood sugar, while complex carbohydrates lead to a gentler insulin increase as sugars are gradually absorbed into the bloodstream.

An analogy I often use with patients is this: imagine your home as a cell and your doorbell as an insulin receptor. When your doorbell is rung (i.e. the receptor is stimulated with insulin), you open the door and welcome your guests (i.e. glucose) into your house. Now picture a pesky neighborhood kid who is ringing your doorbell a few dozen times a day, every day. At some point you are going to become more and more resistant to opening that door. This is insulin resistance.

Excessive intake of refined carbohydrates and frequent snacking can overstimulate insulin receptors, leading to insulin resistance. The constant blood sugar rises means that the insulin receptors don’t get a break from stimulation and eventually they stop responding to insulin in the same way. As a result, cells require higher insulin levels to respond, resulting in fat storage when glucose cannot be efficiently utilized for energy production.

Examples of Simple and Refined carbohydrates

  • White and brown sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Fruit juices
  • Sodas
  • Baked goods (cookies, cake)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • White rice

Effects of Excess Carbohydrate Consumption

When we consume more carbohydrates than needed for immediate energy, surplus sugars are converted into fat for long-term storage. While this mechanism was vital for survival in ancient times of food scarcity, it poses challenges in modern-day settings where excessive feasting is prevalent, and fat storage may not be appropriately utilized. Consequently, this imbalance contributes to expanding waistlines, visceral fat accumulation, and metabolic disorders.

Not All Sugar is Created Equal

Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars in the digestive tract, but not all sugars behave the same way in the body. Starchy carbohydrates are made up of primarily glucose and serve as energy sources for cells.

Fructose, on the other hand, which is abundant in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), undergoes a different metabolic pathway and isn’t immediately usable for energy. Instead, it needs to get converted by the body first into glucose, glycogen, or fat prior to being used as a fuel source. High fructose intake is associated with visceral fat accumulation, elevated cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, and increased risks of heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and type II diabetes.

You may now be wondering: what about natural fructose found in fruits? Luckily fruit consumption has not been associated with the same negative health outcomes that industrial fructose (i.e. table sugar, high fructose corn syrup) has been associated with. This is thought to be due to the fibre in the fruit slowing down the absorption of the sugar, alongside the added nutrients and antioxidants in the fruits providing us with health promoting benefits.

Fructose Content of Various Sugars

Agave syrup

85%

High fructose corn syrup

55%

Table sugar

50%

Honey

40%

Coconut sugar

40%

Maple syrup

35%

Prevention

To prevent insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, prioritize the following strategies:

  1. Maintain a meal structure with three main meals and avoid excessive snacking.
  2. Choose complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar levels and promote more sustained energy production.
  3. Engage in regular physical activity which helps utilize consumed carbohydrates efficiently and prevent excess fat storage alongside improving insulin sensitivity.

In health,

Dr. Nicole Hartman

About Dr. Nicole Hartman

Dr. Nicole Hartman is a naturopathic physician, a world traveler, a hiker, and a blogger. She focuses her practice in digestion, women's health and weight loss and takes an integrative, evidence-based approach to healthcare.