Help! What is Metabolic Syndrome?

Dear Mamas,

My daughter is 9 years old and soon to be in 4th grade. She’s been overweight most of her life, and a couple of months ago we discovered that her blood pressure was running high for a child her age. Now our pediatrician wants to do tests to check for something called metabolic syndrome. I’ve never even heard of it and I’m scared out of my mind! Should I be?


Hi Christine,

You and your daughter are truly lucky. You need to look at the possibility of metabolic syndrome as a big, flashing warning sign that if things don’t change some serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, could be in the cards. The good news is it’s not too late. You have time to heed this warning and turn things around.

Metabolic syndrome is a condition that includes a number of risk factors which, added together, point to the likely future development of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It can affect children as young as 6, and becomes more common in the teen years. Kids with metabolic syndrome have at least three of the following:

> high blood pressure (the number is different for a child than an adult, and depends on age)

> high blood sugar

> high lipid levels, including cholesterol

> excess belly fat

Your doctor is right to be concerned, based on your daughter’s elevated blood pressure and weight, and will want to do additional blood tests to check her lipids and blood glucose. She will also check her body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement.

Kids who have a family history of heart disease or diabetes are at greater risk for metabolic syndrome, but  the lifestyle habits a child adopts can push things in one direction or another.

You may be surprised that your daughter could be at risk at her age, but thanks to the rising childhood obesity epidemic kids are getting these conditions — and they’re getting them earlier than ever before. So what can you do about it?

It’s a good news/bad news story. The good news is that the causes of metabolic syndrome — overweight, poor diet, too many calories, not enough exercise — are things that can be turned around with behavior changes. The bad news is that those changes aren’t easy, especially if your daughter has been carrying extra pounds for awhile. But don’t despair! There are ways to make small changes and still make a big difference.

Start with changes that can help your daughter drop pounds. This is going to mean a change in habits for the entire family, not just your daughter. Even a moderate amount of weight loss can translate to big improvements in blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and the body’s ability to use insulin.

I recommend a visit to a nutritionist who has experience with kids. You can learn ways to cut calories while still serving food kids will like. If a face-to-face nutritionist isn’t possible, there are some suggestions for healthy eating right here at MamasOnCall. Another great resource is Joy Bauer, an adult and child nutritionist who’s written extensively on the subject.

Next, turn off the TV and video games and make time for active play. Get outside, make up games, have the kids compete against each other (never fails), whatever it takes to ramp up that metabolism. Start small and keep upping the time and intensity — you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll see a change.

Kids will only make better choices if they see their parents doing it, so include your entire family and choose a new, healthier direction.  Getting started on the right path beats staying on the wrong one.

Make the change now, and your daughter will follow. You’ll all have a healthier, happier life to show for it!

For more information, see this article from the American Heart Association.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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The Mama ButtonThe information provided by MamasOnCall is not intended as a substitute for professional advice, but is for information purposes only. You assume full responsibility for the health and well-being of your family. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical or psychiatric condition.