The most common set of diseases facing Americans moving into their 40’s and beyond has been termed “metabolic syndrome”. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of disease symptoms that tend to occur together. These are excess body fat around your waist, high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, elevated triglyceride levels, and high fasting blood sugar.
As more Americans are carrying high-deductible health plans along with health savings accounts, many say they are beginning to pay more attention to their health. Health savings accounts (HSAs) allow you to put aside pre-tax money to be used for future medical expenses. Because deposits grow tax-deferred and are not taxed for medical withdrawals, if you fund your account and stay healthy, you could have hundreds of thousands of dollars in your HSA by the time you retire.
The fundamental metabolic disturbance that seems to be common in almost all people who have metabolic syndrome is insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that your body uses to move the carbohydrate that you eat into your cells. If you are insulin resistant, your cells don’t respond well to insulin, and your pancreas has to produce higher amounts in order to keep your blood sugar from going too high. (Once your pancreas is no longer able to keep up with this increased demand, you become diabetic.) If you are insulin sensitive, your body is responding well to smaller amounts of insulin.
Fortunately, metabolic syndrome is almost entirely preventable. Avoid it, and you’ll greatly increase your chances of also avoiding cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, stroke, and many other serious conditions. Though all the mechanisms behind the metabolic syndrome have not been worked out, the evidence is strong that combinations of several lifestyle strategies are very effective in preventing this condition.
Exercising does more than just burn calories or build muscle. One of the most profound benefits of exercise is its effect on insulin sensitivity. When insulin is released in response to carbohydrate ingestion, glucose transporters come to the surface of the cell in order to carry the glucose into the cell. In muscles and fat cells this transporter is called Glut-4. Exercise itself helps Glut-4 to move through the cell membrane to the surface of your muscle cell, causing these cells to be much more insulin sensitive. Even a single bout of exercise will cause your muscles to respond more effectively to insulin.
Eat Low-Glycemic Foods
The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a food raises our blood sugar. The high-glycemic carbohydrates in the American diet are primarily the “white foods” (bread, pasta, rice, white potatoes, and sugar). These foods cause many of the changes associated with metabolic syndrome, including lower HDL levels, and higher triglycerides. When a person eats these foods year after year, insulin levels remain chronically high. The result is that eventually the cells become less responsive to the insulin, in turn leading to increased risk of obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and premature death. Low-glycemic carbohydrates include most fruits and vegetables. Eating a diet that limits or avoids high-glycemic grains, potatoes, and sugars, and includes more low-glycemic fruits and vegetables, fish, and lean meat can dramatically improve your insulin sensitivity.
Eat the Right Fat
We’ve talked in previous issues about the seemingly miraculous health benefits of fish oil. Fish oil improves insulin sensitivity. Eskimos, who consume high quantities of fish oil, rarely experience diabetes, even though they are often overweight. Though the mechanism by which fish oil works isn’t yet understood, many researchers believe that fish oil makes the cell membrane more “fluid”, enabling the Glut-4 transporters to more easily move to the surface of the cell in response to insulin. Everyone who does not eat fish on a regular basis should consider taking a high-quality fish oil.
Saturated fats and trans-fats, in contrast, make the cell membrane more stiff and inflexible, and also reduce insulin sensitivity. Saturated fats are found primarily in beef, pork, and dairy products and trans-fats are found in processed foods. Saturated fats should be minimized, and trans-fats should ideally be completely eliminated from your diet.
Eat Enough Protein
If you’re avoiding starches, you’ll need to replace those calories with something else – that should be lean protein. Protein satisfies your appetite more than any other macronutrient, it increases metabolism, and it will contribute to weight loss. The best proteins are lean meats like turkey breast and chicken breast, lean beef, fish, and eggs. And if you are overweight, nothing will improve your insulin sensitivity faster than losing some weight. In fact, weight loss significantly improves all aspects of metabolic syndrome. Eat the right foods, and your body will tend to normalize at the right weight without you having to count calories or starve yourself.
Remember, just reading an article has never made anyone healthier. Though there are drugs available to treat some of the symptoms, doctors have no pharmaceutical cure for metabolic syndrome, and almost all individuals become more insulin resistant as they age. It is the lifestyle choices and the actions that you take today to improve your insulin sensitivity that will have a powerful impact on the length and quality of your life.
The characteristic that many people like about HSAs is that they reward those who take responsibility for themselves. By putting aside money to pay for future medical expenses, you are being a responsible citizen, and deserve the tax benefits that an HSA offers. Make the same investment in your health, and you’ll not only have the good health to enjoy your retirement, but you’ll also have plenty of money in the bank as well.