Children, Obesity, and Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of five heart-disease risk factors that are frequently found together. First identified in the 1980s by Dr. Gerald Reaven of Stanford University, who dubbed it “syndrome X,” this rogue’s gallery of symptoms include abdominal obesity, low levels of HDL “good” cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and high blood-sugar levels. If you’ve got three or more of these conditions, you’ve got metabolic syndrome.

Reaven’s original hypothesis was that these factors were somehow linked by a common thread. Some 15 years of subsequent research have confirmed that the smoking gun is insulin resistance. You may be familiar with ‘insulin resistance’ as a frequent companion of persistent weight problems and diabetes. And according to a recent study at Yale University, children are increasingly likely to be insulin resistant.
Metabolic syndrome is serious stuff. Its components can lead to complications such as hardening of the arteries and increased risk for cardiovascular and kidney disease. If a person has one component of the syndrome, he or she is at increased risk for having one or more of the others. The more components an individual has, the greater the risks to his or her health.
Metabolic syndrome significantly increases the risk for a heart attack. It’s that simple. And the more obese a person is, the more likely he or she is to have it, according to the Yale study, whose findings were published in the June 3 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. In the study of 195 severely obese youngsters, metabolic syndrome was seen in 50 percent, and of 244 moderately obese children, this syndrome was seen in 39 percent—a significant increase from a decade ago, when only 29 percent of obese kids had the syndrome.
As any parent or anyone who cares about the next generation knows, this is serious. Consider what’s at stake. Today, more than 15 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 19 are overweight, with another 15 percent headed in that direction (3). That’s a lot of kids. We no longer call Type 2 diabetes “adult onset” because we’re seeing it in teenagers. From 1996 to 2001, 2 million teenagers and young adults joined the ranks of the clinically obese (4). The medical tab for obesity-related illnesses? Hold your breath: $117 billion a year!
When the Yale researchers followed up with 77 of the original child subjects, they found that 34 of the group had been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome at the study’s onset and 24 still had it. Interestingly, the other 10 children no longer had it. What happened? Well, these 10 kids tended to be less overweight in the first place; more importantly, they gained the least amount of weight during the course of the study and improved their insulin sensitivity the most. That’s actually an optimistic finding: It shows that if you improve insulin sensitivity, you can reverse the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome. And of course, if you lose weight, which always produces even more improvement in the insulin-sensitivity department, then your results are going to be even better. This almost always happens when carbohydrates are controlled on Atkins.
The bad news is that of the 43 children who didn’t have metabolic syndrome at the start of the study, 16 had developed it by the follow-up. Moreover, in a relatively short time, 8 of the kids with metabolic syndrome moved on to full-blown Type 2 diabetes The point is, there is no time like the present to begin the process of reversing insulin resistance. And I know of no more effective way to do so than by following the Atkins Nutritional Approach.
The Yale study’s conclusions are twofold: Metabolic syndrome is far more common among children and adolescents than anyone had previously thought; and the more obese a child is, the greater the likelihood of metabolic syndrome—and, sadly, future heart disease.
By losing weight or avoiding weight gain, these children can lower their risk of CHD and diabetes. It’s time to take the gloves off in the war against obesity and its close cousin, metabolic syndrome. The Atkins Nutritional Approach is emerging as the weapon of choice in the battle for our nation’s health.
The future of our kids is at stake. Do you know of anything more important?
Selected References
1. Sattar, N., Gaw, A., Scherbakova, O., et al., “Metabolic Syndrome With and Without C-Reactive Protein as a Predictor of Coronary Heart Disease and Diabetes in the West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study,” Circulation, 108(4), 2003, pages 414-419.
2. Weiss, R., Dziura, J., Burgert, T.S., et al., “Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome in Children and Adolescents,” New England Journal of Medicine, 350(23), 2004, pages 2362-2374.
3. Ogden, C.L., Flegal, K.M., Carroll, M.D., et al., “Prevalence and Trends in Overweight among Us Children and Adolescents, 1999-2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 288(14), 2002, pages 1728-1732.
4. Gordon-Larsen, P., Adair, L., Nelson, M., et al., “Obesity Incidence and Prevalence During the Transition Period Between Adolescence and Adulthood: The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” Abstract presented at The North American Association for the Study of Obesity Annual Meeting 2003, Obesity Research, 11S, 2003, page A28, abstract 115OR. 

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