Triglycerides: What They Are, and Why You Should Be Thinking About Them

Diabetes Care|Feb.14, 2020

Keeping your heart healthy means tracking not just your blood pressure and cholesterol levels but also looking out for the third contributor to heart disease: triglycerides.

Since triglyceride levels are often included in a cholesterol test, you might assume that these two terms are synonymous. They're not, and understanding the differences might help keep your heart healthy.

How Different Are They?

Triglycerides and cholesterol are fatty substances, but they serve two different purposes. Neither of these are soluble in blood, and they circulate throughout the body together with special proteins called lipoproteins.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance used for the synthesis of cells, hormones and nerves. Triglycerides are a form of fat stored in our body. They come from two sources: dietary fats, such as meats, oils and dairy foods, and what's synthesised in the liver.

Our bodies turn the surplus calories from the food we eat into triglycerides, which are stored as a source of energy. Over time, if these stored fats stay unused, they continue accumulating in our body, resulting in high triglyceride levels.

Why Should You Worry About High Triglyceride Levels?

A high triglyceride level is one of the most common risk factors for cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke. It's often indicative of other metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease and thyroid disorders, and it could also cause pancreatitis.

Heightened triglycerides can also occur as a side-effect of excessive alcohol consumption, intake of high-sugar foods, and certain medications, such as hormone replacement therapy.

In these cases, fat substances harden and narrow blood vessels. This is known as atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart disease. This, when coupled with other risk factors — high cholesterol, high blood glucose, high blood pressure and obesity — further elevates the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Such increased levels also interfere with the body's natural blood-clotting mechanism — and a blood clot could lead to a heart attack or a stroke.

What Do Healthy Triglyceride Levels Look Like?

Triglycerides are often measured as part of a test called a lipid profile or lipid panel, which uses a blood test to screen for abnormalities like cholesterol and triglycerides. Ideally, if you have your blood drawn after fasting for at least 12 hours, your triglyceride levels should fall within the following ranges, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Normal: less than 150 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 150–199 mg/dL
  • High: 200–499 mg/dL
  • Very high: more than 500 mg/dL

How Can You Lower Your Triglyceride Levels?

Because triglycerides are unused calories that have been stored, using up these calories and reducing your calorie intake are two straightforward ways to lower them. There are also other ways, such as:

  • Dietary adjustments: Avoid eating foods that drive your calorie intake above healthy levels. According to the Indian Heart Association, processed carbohydrates, such as white rice and bread products like naan and puri, are a big contributor to high triglycerides among South Asians. Opt for complex carbohydrates from vegetables and whole grains over simple carbohydrates from refined grains and added sugars. Also, be sure to avoid sugary drinks and junk foods. Make sure you're choosing healthier fats, like plant-based monosaturated fats over trans fats obtained from meats; or omega-3-rich fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.

  • Weight loss: If you are overweight or obese, losing weight will help balance your triglycerides. If you're not sure where to begin, consulting a dietician for a comprehensive plan for weight reduction is a good place to start.

  • Exercise: Staying active is one of the best ways to burn calories and lower triglyceride storage. You should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week. This can be easily achieved with 30 minutes of exercise broken up over five days a week. You should use the stairs whenever possible, and avoid sitting for extended hours.

  • Medications: If your triglyceride levels are high, your doctor might be able to suggest medications to help lower them.

Follow these tips, and you'll be well on your way to lowering your triglyceride levels and maintaining them within a healthy range to reduce potential damage to your heart.


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