America’s obesity epidemic continues to take a heavy toll on the nation’s health, making the body vulnerable to a new silent killer — metabolic disease. Formerly known as mysterious “Syndrome X,” the disorder has become very common, affecting about 34 percent of adults, as it's growing alongside obesity. Being overweight or obese can trigger the onset of metabolic syndrome, but what are its exact root causes and who’s at risk?

Metabolic Syndrome: A Cluster Of Conditions

Discovered less than 20 years ago, the syndrome is classified by a set of pathologies that include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and obesity. These pathologies tend to go hand-in-hand with the rise of obesity, which can eventually lead to diabetes and hypertension, and therefore, metabolic syndrome. Those with at least three of these five risk factors may be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome by their doctor. These cluster of conditions are known to raise the risk for heart disease and other health problems that can become deadly.

Dr. Matthew Brennecke, a board certified naturopathic doctor practicing at the Rocky Mountain Wellness Clinic in Fort Collins believes because metabolic syndrome is a collection of risk factors rather than a single disease, it’s likely to have several different causes. Overweight and obesity, an inactive lifestyle, and insulin resistance are among some causes that can be controlled compared to growing older and genetics. “These risk factors are very common in our society today. It’s difficult to walk down the street and not see at least one of them, as roughly 35 percent of Americans are considered obese,” Brennecke told Medical Daily in an email.

Metabolic Syndrome Prevention: The Dietary And Fitness Approach

Risk factors like obesity, age, diabetes, and Latin and Asian origin are associated with an increased risk of the disorder, but they can be modified with proper diet and exercise. This can be improved by eating less sugar and more real food fiber. Dr. Nitun Verma, a physician and co-founder of PeerWell, a company that treats chronic disease through a smartphone app, emphasizes the key is control. “The trick is that cutting sugar and boosting real food fiber temporarily is tough, but after a few days hunger and appetite decreases, and it becomes easier,” he told Medical Daily in an email. “Regular vigorous exercise is also helpful.”

A 2005 study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found lifestyle changes can be effective in preventing metabolic syndrome. People with impaired glucose tolerance — a pre-diabetic state — were 41 percent less likely to have metabolic syndrome than those who got no treatment after exercising for 2.5 hours a week and eating a low-calorie, low-fat diet for three years. These lifestyle changes were also seen twice as effective as in Glucophage, a diabetes medicine.

Weight gain and physical inactivity in early childhood can increase the chances of metabolic syndrome skyrocketing. This is why it’s imperative to start children on a healthy path from the beginning to prevent obesity and obesity-related conditions. Brennecke advises parents to make sure children are getting outside and playing daily. “Feed your children healthy food that doesn’t come from a box or a drive-thru,” he said.

For adults, losing even 10 percent of your body weight (is overweight) can help lower triglycerides, raise good HDL cholesterol, lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar, says the Cleveland Clinic. Eating well and being active are also key components of preventing metabolic syndrome.

Overall, avoiding metabolic syndrome means making healthy lifestyle changes.