What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat, which come into your bloodstream three different ways:
- Consumption of foods that contain fat
- Consumption of extra calories, carbohydrates, and simple sugars
- Release from fat stores in the body
How are triglycerides different from cholesterol?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both types of fat in your blood known as lipids. Triglycerides provide much of the energy for cell function and metabolism of alcohol, and cholesterol is used to build cells and several hormones.
Your health care provider can check your cholesterol and triglyceride levels by taking a sample of blood. The blood is analyzed and provides triglyceride level, total cholesterol level, HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or "good" cholesterol) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol).
Following a meal, blood triglyceride levels are normally elevated. For an accurate reading, blood samples for a triglyceride test should be taken after a 12-hour period of not eating or drinking.
What are the guidelines for triglyceride levels?
Guidelines for triglyceride levels in healthy adults are:
- Normal: under 150 mg/dL
- Borderline high: 150-199 mg/dL
- High: 200-499 mg/dL
- Very high: 500 mg/dL or higher
Is a high triglyceride level a health problem?
Yes. Current research reveals elevated triglycerides may contribute to hardening the artery wall, which increases risk for stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. Often, high triglycerides are a sign of other conditions such as obesity, poorly controlled diabetes, low thyroid hormones, and liver or kidney disease.
How can triglycerides be lowered?
You may be able to reduce high triglycerides without medication by reducing sugar, alcohol, and fat intake, and following a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. If you currently smoke, stopping may decrease your triglyceride level and your risk for heart disease. Weight loss may also decrease your triglyceride level and your risk for heart disease.
To reduce fat and cholesterol in your diet, here are some suggestions:
- Eat fewer calories if you are overweight. Excess calories are converted into triglycerides and stored as fat.
- Avoid refined foods and foods that contain sugar (such as white flour, desserts, candy, juices, fruit drinks, soda pop, and sweetened beverages).
- Choose carbohydrates that have 2 grams fiber or more per serving, such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, and whole grain cereals.
- Follow your doctor's advice regarding alcohol. Alcohol increases triglyceride levels for some individuals. If you have high triglycerides and do consume alcohol (such as red wine), it is recommended to limit intake to 5 ounces per day or limit it entirely.
- Decrease total amount of fat you eat to 20-35% of your total calories (<15% if triglycerides are higher than 500 mg/dL); saturated fat should provide 7% or less of your total calories. For example, a person eating 2,000 calories per day would eat 65 grams or fewer total fat and 16 grams of saturated fat.
- Avoid trans fats, which are partially hydrogenated oils found in some fried foods and commercial baked products. The goal is 1% of calories (or less) per day. For example, if following a 2,000-calorie diet, aim to consume 2 grams or fewer per day.
- Replace saturated fat (found in animal fat and some tropical oils) for monounsaturated fat (found in olive/canola/peanut oils, etc.).
- Limit cholesterol intake to 300 mg per day, 200 mg/day or less if you have heart disease.
- Consume at least 2 servings of cold water fish each week, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, lake trout, herring, and sardines (all of which are high in omega-3-fatty acid). Include into your diet other foods high in omega-3 fatty acid, such as ground/milled flaxseed, walnuts, almonds, canola or soybean oil, etc.
- Aim for 3 servings of low-fat dairy per day, such as 8 oz. milk or yogurt.
- Choose up to 6 ounces per day of lean protein, such as fish, skinless poultry, lean beef, or lean pork.
- Consume at least 2-3 cups of vegetables and 1 cup of fruit each day.
- Exercise to burn excess calories, aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week.
People who have high triglycerides and low HDL or high LDL levels may require medications as well as diet modifications. Patients with triglycerides in the very high range (over 500 mg/dL) generally will require medications, because triglyceride levels this high may cause an acute inflammation of the pancreas.
Is it possible to combine a triglyceride-lowering diet with a heart-healthy style of eating?
Absolutely! Following a heart-healthy diet, reducing alcohol and sugar intake, complete with physical activity and a healthy body weight, is recommended for all individuals. If you have other questions about triglycerides, consult your doctor or registered dietitian.