One of the most common questions I get when reviewing biometric screening results with my patients is “What are triglycerides, and what can I do to lower my levels?” Cholesterol gets a lot of attention in the media, but triglycerides seem to be a bit of a mystery to many people.
Triglycerides are the main constituents of natural fats and oils, an ester formed from glycerol and three fatty acid groups. Chemically, a fatty acid is a long hydrocarbon chain capped by a carboxyl group (COOH). Three fatty acids bonded together with glycerol to form a triglyceride. (see diagram).
When you eat, your body converts calories that are not immediately needed into triglycerides and stores them in your fat cells, kept on reserve for later needs, like for energy between meals. If you regularly eat more calories than you use, especially “empty calories” from simple sugars, refined grains and alcohol, you can have high triglycerides in your blood. Studies show that high triglyceride levels are associated with a higher risk for heart disease and stroke.
Sometimes high triglycerides are a sign of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, liver or kidney disease, or rare genetic conditions that affect how your body converts fat to energy. High triglycerides could also be a side effect of taking some kinds of medications such as beta blockers, birth control pills, diuretics, steroids or the breast cancer drug tamoxifen.
Fortunately, triglyceride levels usually respond well to diet and lifestyle modifications. So, taking the following steps can bring your triglyceride levels back into normal range, improve your health and lower your risk of chronic disease:
- Lose weight if you are overweight (BMI greater than 25).
- Eat less calories so your body doesn’t have extra calories to store as triglycerides.
- Minimize refined foods and sugary foods – eat them only as ‘treats’ once in awhile, but not as a regular part of your daily intake.
- Abstain from alcoholic beverages, or stick to the recommended limit of 1 drink (for women) or 2 drinks (for men).
- Eat a diet rich in healthy fats, vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, beans, nuts, and seeds.
- Be physically active. Moderate activity for at least 30 minutes daily is essential to many aspects of health and can also help to lower triglycerides by burning calories rather than storing them.
The normal target that you’ll want to shoot for with your triglyceride level is less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl).