Metabolic Syndrome in Children

The information on this page has been compiled and edited from previously published articles, by Dr. Connie Guttersen.  The articles are not intended as health advice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the California Olive Committee. Always consult your physician on matters of health and wellness.

by Connie Guttersen, RD PhD.

Experts continue to confirm that overweight is the most critical public health threat facing children today. According to recent forecasts by the International Obesity Taskforce, the rate of childhood obesity is set to double by the end of the decade. By their alarming figures, almost 287 million kids will be obese by 2010; and the overall obese population could rise to 700 million by 2015.

Without intervention, these children become obese adolescents and young adults, which leads to concern about an emergence of cardiovascular disease, due to the synergistic effects of other components of metabolic syndrome and low-grade inflammation. Who would have ever imagined that our children would be experiencing groups of health risk factors common to adults as early as four years old?

As a health professional, I believe it is important to help consumers gain a better understanding of Metabolic Syndrome and how it can be reversed. A recent study, published by Malin Garemo, a researcher from Gothenburg University in Sweden, found that a higher intake of dietary fat is associated with lower body weight in children. The research also correlated a higher BMI with higher intakes of sugar. This study offers an alternative side to the role of fat intake in the rise of obesity and insulin resistance--one which is often misunderstood and interpreted that all dietary fat is a risk factor for obesity among children.

The study focused on 180 healthy four year olds in Gothenburg and examined eating habits and lifestyles. Twenty percent of the children were classified as being overweight based on their BMI (greater than 25 and less than 30), and two percent were obese (greater than BMI of 30). Risk factors for metabolic syndrome, such as central obesity, hypertension, and abnormal blood glucose and insulin metabolism were also diagnosed in many of the children.

Diet, socioeconomic lifestyle, and health questionnaires were completed by the parents of the children; and there was an analysis of the children's body measurements. Interestingly, one fourth of the children's energy requirements were being met by "junk food", (candy, chips, ice cream, cookies and sweet beverages), despite the overall energy intakes being in accordance with the Nordic nutrition recommendations. A closer look at the nutrient intakes revealed higher amounts of sugar and saturated fat intake, while the intake of unsaturated fats, especially omega 3 fatty acids, iron, and Vitamin D were lower than the recommended amounts. The children who had a higher body weight consumed low amounts of omega 3 fatty acids. This supports other studies that show that obese children have shortages of omega 3.

“Good” Fat Sources

Children need  "good" fats to supply nutrients that are essential for growth and energy. Fats play a key role in the absorption and metabolism of many nutrients such as the fat soluble antioxidant vitamin E and the carotenoids. Fats are also vitally important to the brain, which is 70% fat.

Limiting fat in the diet is also associated with a diet that is low in zinc and vitamin E, as well as a diet high in sugar, starch, and refined carbohydrates. USDA data from the "Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals" shows that 95% of girls ages 6 to 19 do not meet the needs for Vitamin E intake. A low fat diet can also increase the risk of an essential fatty acid deficiency, which increases the susceptibility of eczema, hair loss, growth retardation, asthma, vision impairment and learning problems.

The smart choice is to choose monounsaturated fats as the major source of fat in the diet; this includes olive oil, avocado, nuts, and canola oil. These sources not only provide a good form of fat--monounsaturated--but also contain additional antioxidants. Hydrogenated oils, found in margarine and snack foods (using partially hydrogenated oils), are the worst types of fat for a child and should be limited as much as possible. In addition to the increased risk for heart disease, as found in consistent medical research, hydrogenated oil in children predisposes them to recurrent infections, inflammatory conditions, and potential learning disorders.

How to Enjoy Healthy Foods in a Child's Real World?

The research also correlated a higher BMI with higher intakes of sugar. A new review of research in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition finds that children's eating behaviors are a direct reflection of their environment and the parents' eating styles. In particular, studies have shown that children choose to eat the foods served most often and tend to prefer foods that are easy to eat (like apple wedges and carrot sticks), and that children and teens who eat meals with their family consume more healthy foods.

Establishing a good eating environment not only makes eating enjoyable, it establishes healthy habits, which are most likely to continue into adulthood.


  • Garemo MH. Nutrition and health in 4 year olds in a Swedish Well Educated Community. Published by the Swedish Research Councilà_aspx_rpstry_32_--omega-3-obesità-infantile.sphtml
  • Garemo MH. Metabolic markers in relation to nutrition and growth in healthy 4-year-old children. AJCN Vol 84, no5. 1021-1026, 2006
  • Gable, S. et al. Television watching and frequency of family meals are predictive of overweight onset and persistence in a National Sample of School Aged Children. J AM Diet Assoc. 2007;107:53-61.
  • Patrick H, et al. A review of family and social determinants of children's eating patterns and diet quality. Journal of the College American Nutrition. 2005; 24(2): 83-92.