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Orla Walsh: What to eat in 2023 if you want to look good, feel great and live longer

According to new research from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin, one in three adults over the age of 50 years in Ireland meets the diagnostic criteria for metabolic syndrome.

etabolic syndrome is the medical term for a combination of at least three of the following conditions: obesity; high blood sugar levels; high blood pressure; low levels of protective forms of cholesterol (HDL cholesterol); and high levels of harmful forms of cholesterol (triglycerides). The results showed that a staggering one in three people in the study were obese, over one in 10 had high blood sugar; three in four people had high blood pressure, and two in five had high levels of triglycerides.

So what does it all mean? Well for starters, having metabolic syndrome significantly increases your risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The leading causes of death worldwide are cardiovascular disease and cancer. So to tackle metabolic syndrome head on, we must address important areas such as lowering risk factors for the cluster of conditions, lowering blood pressure and managing cholesterol.

Each week, I will share foods you should eat more of, and foods you should eat less of to address each area. This week, we will start with how to lower overall metabolic syndrome risk.

​Eat more fibre

Research suggests that about 80pc of Irish people are fibre deficient. Numerous studies have associated more fibre with lower risk of metabolic syndrome. Different fibres do different things, eg feed the gut microbiome, bulk out stools or impact gut motility, decrease LDL cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, decrease CRP (a marker of inflammation), manage hunger, etc.

For those looking to reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, foods that supply viscous and fermentable fibres such as beans, peas and lentils are likely to have benefits.

​There are simple things you can do to boost your fibre:

— Add flavour and texture to stews and soups by adding barley.

— Replace a third of the mince with uncooked oats when making meatballs.

— Keep the skin on your fruit and vegetables.

— Add beans, mushrooms and a grilled tomato to your eggs at breakfast.

— Sprinkle mixed nuts and seeds on your porridge or cereal.

— Trade crisps for popcorn.

Eat more fruits and vegetables

Research suggests that Irish people eat about four portions of fruit and vegetables each day, rather than the recommended seven. Fruits and vegetables provide more than fibre, water, and nutrients like vitamin C and folate. They also provide phytocompounds, which help support antioxidant defences and anti-inflammatory pathways. Observational studies show that the more fruit and veg we eat, the less risk of metabolic syndrome. The great news is that convenient options like dried fruits, tinned fruit and vegetables as well as frozen varieties count towards your seven a day.


We should eat seven portions of fruit and vegetables each day

What is a portion of fruit/veg?

  • Small fresh fruits: 2 kiwi fruit or 7 strawberries
  • ​Medium fresh fruit: 1 apple or 1 banana
  • ​Large fresh fruit: ½ grapefruit or 1 large slice of pineapple
  • Dried fruit (a portion is around 30g): 1 heaped tbsp of raisins, currants or sultanas; 1 tbsp of mixed fruit
  • ​Tinned or frozen fruit: 2 pear or peach halves; 2 handfuls of frozen blueberries
  • ​Green vegetables: 2 broccoli spears; 2 heaped tbsp of cooked spinach; 4 heaped tbsp of green beans
  • Cooked vegetables: 3 heaped tablespoons of peas; 3 heaped tablespoons of sweetcorn; 8 cauliflower florets
  • Salad vegetables: 3 celery sticks; 5cm of cucumber; 1 medium tomato; 7 cherry tomatoes

​Eat more fish

We may be an island but despite this, surveys suggest the average intake is about two bites of fish a week. Eating more fish is associated with lower risk of metabolic syndrome in prospective cohort studies. A good aim is to have oily fish once a week, white fish at least once a week, and shellfish at least once a week.


A good aim is to have oily fish such as salmon once a week

— White fish contains iodine which aids the normal functioning of the metabolism and nervous system

— ​Shellfish contains zinc which aids the breakdown and use of carbohydrates, proteins and fats within our food

​— Oily fish contains omega-3 fats, which are beneficial for the normal function of the heart and help to manage blood cholesterol levels

Cut down on sugary drinks & processed food

Previously, the focus was on saturated fats and cholesterol levels. However, research shows that high-sugar diets are also contributing to raised cholesterol levels. High-sugar diets lead to elevated levels of triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in our blood and are a source of energy. Triglycerides are a combination of three fats and glycerol, which is a form of sugar. When we eat or drink them, they enter our blood and are either used straight away or stored. High-sugar drinks provide the body with 8-9 tsp of sugar in mere minutes. None too surprisingly, high sugar drinks are linked with greater incidence of metabolic syndrome.

When it comes to ultra-processed foods, in a cross-sectional analysis people with the highest consumption of these foods had a 28pc higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome than people who consumed less. When it comes to metabolic health, processed foods provide lots of what we already consume too much of — namely sugar, salt and saturated fat. They offer little in the way of the nutrients we don’t consume enough of, particularly fibre.


Dietitian Orla Walsh. Picture by Owen Breslin


Daily movement: In the TILDA study, the big modifiable factor, which should be a big takeaway for people, is that exercise and movement help to protect the body against metabolic syndrome. In fact, participants were 71pc more likely to have metabolic syndrome if they had low levels of physical activity. Regular movement can help to avoid rises in insulin and reduce inflammation. The guidelines encourage at least 150 minutes of cardio a week, as well as two strength suggestions. For example, five 30-minute walks as well as two yoga or Pilates classes.

Better sleep habits: Epidemiological studies suggest that sleep is associated with metabolic syndrome. The results of a meta-analysis of several cross-sectional studies showed increased risk of metabolic syndrome in those with shorter sleep duration (approximately less than 6.5 hours) compared to individuals with seven to eight hours of sleep.

However, it appears to be a Goldilocks scenario, with many of these studies also reporting an association between longer sleep duration (more than nine hours) and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. A more recent bit of research also highlights the need for good-quality sleep, not just the right amount of sleep. Daily movement, limiting caffeine, spending time outdoors, and keeping a predictable bedtime and wake-time will help improve sleep quality.

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