What are Triglycerides?

Father pushing daughter on swingIt’s time for your annual check-up  you’re feeling pretty good; you’re not too overweight, you don’t think you eat THAT much junk food, and your lab work has always been okay in the past.  Then your doctor comes in the room and says, “Most of these labs look good, but I’m concerned about your triglyceride level.  It’s getting pretty high.”

You think, “My what?”

We’ve all heard we’re supposed to watch our blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, but what are triglycerides?  

The short answer is: triglycerides are fats. While we all need some fats in our blood (they do play a healthy role too), if triglycerides levels get too high they can increase your risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.  This risk is greater if you also have diabetes.  

What is considered high?

  • Normal — Less than 150 mg/dL
  • Borderline high — 150 to 199 mg/dL 
  • High — 200 to 499 mg/dL 
  • Very high — 500 mg/dL or above

Often if triglycerides levels are high, your LDL or (“bad” cholesterol) may also be high.  Fortunately, the steps you take to lower triglycerides will work to lower cholesterol as well.

What do I do now?

If you have high triglyceride levels, which are fats, you’d think the solution is to cut down on how much fat you eat. While it is a good idea to limit unhealthy fats in anyone’s diet, it turns out that fat intake is not the largest contributor to blood triglyceride levels – excess intake of sugars and refined carbohydrates is. 

The following steps will help to reduce high levels:

  • Avoid ADDED sugars.  Many processed foods contain added sugars. Regular soda, sports drinks, coffee drinks, candy, ice cream, cookies, sweetened yogurt, some cereals, granola bars, even peanut butter may have sugar added to them.  Many nutrition labels now include a separate line that show “added sugars” to distinguish them from naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit or milk.  The American Heart Association recommends the following:

Women: no more than 25g of added sugars per day; 

Men: no more than 38g of added sugars per day.  

There are approximately 40g of sugar in one 12oz can of cola.

  • Reduce your consumption of refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates are foods such as:  white bread, white pasta, white rice, bagels, muffins, cakes, cookies and doughnuts (many of which are high in added sugars as well!).  Try substituting whole grain bread, pasta and rice for some of your refined grains and reducing portion sizes.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption. For some people, alcohol has a powerful effect on blood triglyceride levels. If your triglyceride levels are high and you regularly consume alcohol, consider cutting back and see if that helps.
  • MOVE! Any amount of increased activity will have a beneficial effect, but try get in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, five days per week. Choose what you like best, since that is probably what will keep you moving. Try brisk walking, riding a bike, swimming, playing basketball, going to a fitness class, etc.  Exercise lowers triglyceride levels.
  • If you are overweight, lose weight. Even losing 5-10% of your weight can lower triglyceride levels.
  • Include healthier fats, especially omega3-fats. Choose healthier fats, such as the ones found in nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and fish. There are certain types of fats called Omega-3 fats that are especially beneficial. Unfortunately the American diet tends to not include a lot of omega-3 rich foods. The best sources of omega-3’s include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, and sardines; and plant foods including flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.  These healthier fats should replace some less healthy fats in your diet, such as saturated fats found in red meat and full fat dairy

If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t panic!  Take baby steps for better success. Choose one goal, make it part of your daily routine for a few weeks or until you have mastered it, then move on to the next goal. For example, if you drink regular soda, try changing that. Replace half of your soda intake with calorie free flavored water, flavored seltzer, unsweetened iced tea, or just plain water.   Once you have gotten used to that change, set a new goal. Your current habits weren’t formed all at once; and you likely won’t be able to change them in an instant either.  But by making small changes, you can take steps to decrease your triglyceride level and improve your overall health.

For more information, visit these websites:

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