Metabolic Risk Factors: Five Numbers You Need to Know

Posted on by Neal Barnard, MD, FACC

vegetable-basketA new study shows statins may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 46%. That’s especially worrisome, considering this cholesterol-lowering drug nets blockbuster sales and remains a widely popular prescription. The good news is there is an option that not only rivals its pharmaceutical competitors, but tackles symptoms of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes: it’s called a low-fat, vegan diet. The “side effects” you’ll see with a plant-based prescription – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes – are all good. Instead of narrowing arteries and insulin resistance, you’ll see improvements in arterial plaque, improved blood flow, and stabilized blood sugar. These three biometric markers, combined with waist circumference and body weight, hold the key to a clean bill of health. With a dietary intervention, you’ll see results in just a matter of weeks. Here are five numbers concerning metabolic risk factors that you (or your patients) need to know: 1. Body Mass Index: Aim for a body mass index (BMI) below 25 kg/m2. 2. Waist Circumference: Women should have a waist circumference of 35 inches or less, while men should have a waist circumference of 40 inches or less. Excessive abdominal fat increases your risk for developing obesity-related conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 3. Hemoglobin A1c: A normal level for this 3-month measurement of blood sugar is less than 5.7%. Prediabetes occurs between 5.7 and 6.4%. A low-fat, plant-based diet is especially powerful for blood sugar control. 4. Blood Pressure: Systolic blood pressure, or pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats, should be less than 120 mm Hg, and diastolic blood pressure, or pressure in your vessels when your heart rests between beats, should be less than 80 mm Hg. Bonus: Limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day and reach for potassium-rich foods. 5. Cholesterol: Aim for total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL, which reduces the risk for heart disease. Three numbers influence your total cholesterol score:
  • HDL, high-density lipoprotein, should be 45 mg/dL or higher for men and 55 mg/dL or higher for women.
  • LDL, low-density lipoprotein, should be less than 100 mg/dL.
  • Triglycerides, excess fat circulating in the blood, should be less than 150 mg/dL.
*Remember, not all plant-based foods are created equal. Minimize intake of sources high in saturated fat, such as coconut oil and packaged foods, which can elevate total cholesterol. A good rule of thumb is to favor leafy greens, raw vegetables, and foods packed with soluble fiber, such as oats and black beans, to see remarkable results. Want to learn more? Attend the International Conference on Nutrition and Medicine (ICNM) in Washington, DC this July. A panel of cardiologists, academic researchers, and practicing physicians will discuss the best ways to bring dietary interventions into clinical practice. Until then, I’ll see you at the next farmers market. Photo from here, with thanks.