The Truth About Triglycerides
You’ve probably had your blood tested for cholesterol by your healthcare provider.
This test measures your total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
It also measures your triglycerides, which can tell your provider a lot about your
health. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. Most of your body's
fat is stored as triglycerides.
Cholesterol and fat
Cholesterol and other fats in your blood are needed for certain body processes. Cholesterol
travels to your cells via special carriers called lipoproteins. The total cholesterol
reading in a lipid profile test measures the blood cholesterol in all the lipoproteins
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) move cholesterol from the liver to other areas of the
body. LDL is referred to as the bad cholesterol, because some of the LDL particles
enter the walls of arteries. There, they form harmful cholesterol deposits.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) carry cholesterol from body tissues back to the liver
where it can be removed from the body. Having plenty of HDL cholesterol means that
your body is able to regulate (and reduce) the cholesterol content of body tissues.
Cholesterol in HDL has been called the good cholesterol.
The source of triglycerides
Food is one source of triglycerides. Your liver also makes them. When you eat extra
calories — especially carbohydrates — your liver increases the production of triglycerides.
When you consume — or your body creates — excess triglycerides, they’re stored in
fat cells for later use. When they’re needed, your body releases them as fatty acids,
which fuel body movement, create heat and provide energy for body processes.
For good health, your triglyceride level should be less than 150 mg/dL. Borderline
high levels are 150 to 199 mg/dL. High is 200 to 499 mg/dL. Very high is 500 mg/dL
Cause for concern
If you have a high triglyceride level, your healthcare provider may have talked with
you about taking steps to lower it. This is because some lipoproteins that are rich
in triglycerides also contain cholesterol. This can lead to atherosclerosis in people
with high triglycerides. A person with high triglycerides often has other risk factors
for heart disease, such as age (men over 45 and women over 55), family history, a
low HDL level, or diabetes. Very high levels of triglycerides are associated with
inflammation of the pancreas. People who are overweight or obese often have higher
than normal levels of triglycerides. All these conditions may increase your risk for
developing heart disease or of having a heart attack or stroke.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes may help you manage your triglyceride levels and other
risk factors for heart disease.
High risk groups
Certain people are at higher risk for problems from high cholesterol. They may need
to use anti-cholesterol medicines along with eating a healthy diet and exercising
regularly to reduce cholesterol. The major risk groups include:
Adults who have had a heart attack or stroke, or some other atherosclerotic disease,
a transient ichemic attack, stable or unstable angina, and anyone who has had a procedure
(such as angioplasty or bypass surgery) to restore blood flow through a blocked artery
Adults who have diabetes or a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke and high LDL cholesterol (70-189 mg/dL)
People who are 21 years of age and older who have an LDL cholesterol level of 190
mg/dL or higher
If you are otherwise in good health, one of the best ways to lower triglycerides is
with regular exercise. Choose an activity that gets your heart beating faster. Aim
for an average of 40 minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise on 3 to 4 days
a week. You don’t need to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. Taking a brisk walk
every day can work just as well.
Making the following adjustments to your diet also may help:
Consume less saturated fat. This type of fat comes from animal products, such as red
meats and whole-milk dairy foods. Choose lean meats, and replace full-fat dairy items
with low-fat and nonfat versions.
Consume less total fat in your diet. Limit fat calories to less than 30% of your total
Consume less simple carbohydrates, such as table sugar and syrup. Limit your intake
of baked goods made with white flour and sugar. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates,
such as found in whole-wheat flour, brown rice, and vegetables.
Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats, found in fish, play a role in helping
keep triglycerides down. Salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, and herring all have a lot
Get 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, such as whole-wheat
bread and brown rice, are great sources.
Cut back on alcohol. For some people, drinking even a little bit can have a big effect
on triglycerides. Talk with your doctor about how much, if any, alcohol you may consume.
Lose weight, if you’re overweight. Ask your doctor to help you measure your body mass index (BMI). This is a measurement that relates your height to your weight. You are overweight
if your BMI is 25 or greater; you're obese if your BMI is 30 or greater.
If changes in your diet and exercise don’t lower your triglyceride level, your healthcare
provider may recommend medicine, such as nicotinic acid (niacin). This B vitamin increases
HDL and lowers LDL and triglycerides when taken at levels higher than dietary requirements.
Nicotinic acid is sold as both a prescription drug and a dietary supplement. But only
the prescription form should be used for cholesterol and triglyceride lowering unless
directed by your doctor. Fibrates (gemfibrozil, fenofibrate) help mainly by lowering
triglycerides. They also may lead to modest improvements in LDL and HDL levels. Omega-3-fatty
acids, such as found in fish oil and flax seed oil, may also lower triglyceride levels
when taken in prescription strength doses. The statin drugs commonly used to treat
high LDL levels can also reduce triglyceride levels.
High blood pressure and smoking both increase your risk for heart disease. So, work
with your doctor to manage high blood pressure, and if you smoke, take steps to quit.
Talk to your doctor about nicotine replacement products and medicines that can help.
If you are in a high risk group, discuss your treatment goals with your healthcare
provider. Make sure you understand how your cholesterol and other factors impact
your risk of heart disease or other complications. Plan to have regular monitoring
and report any side effects from the medicines. Sometimes, you may need more than
one medicine to reach your cholesterol goals. Also, make sure you also understand
how to prepare for cholesterol testing. It often requires that you fast before the