Triglycerides and Your Health

If you're concerned about heart health, then you probably take steps to reduce your cholesterol and keep your blood pressure in check. But there's another important measure you should be aware of: your triglycerides. People with high triglycerides (called hypertriglyceridemia) often have low HDL ("good cholesterol") levels; this combination is considered by many experts to be associated with an increased risk for heart disease.

Triglycerides are the most common forms of fat found in the food you eat and in your body. The visible fat on chicken and steak, for example, is actually triglycerides. Your body stores the extra calories you eat inside your fat cells as triglycerides. Since your body regularly uses stored body fat as fuel between meals, the triglycerides stored in your fat cells are released into the bloodstream. The more excess body fat you have, and the more extra calories you eat, the higher your triglyceride levels are likely to be.

A simple blood cholesterol test (also known as a lipid profile), performed after fasting for nine to 12 hours, can determine your triglyceride level. Less than 150 mg/dL of triglycerides is considered normal. Levels above 150 are considered "high" to different degrees: 150-199 mg/dL (borderline high), 200-499 mg/dL (high) and over 500 mg/dL (very high).

High triglycerides are correlated with a hardening and/or thickening of the artery walls, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which elevates your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. They can also be a "symptom" of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and poorly managed type 2 diabetes—additional health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease.

So how do you lower your triglycerides? By making heart-healthy lifestyle choices when it comes to your diet, weight and fitness. Here are a few ways to start:
  • Lose weight if you are overweight. Since your body releases triglycerides into the bloodstream from your stored fat, the less fat you have available, the lower your triglycerides will be. You don't have to lose a lot of weight to see a benefit either. Losing just seven to 10 percent of your body weight (just 14 to 20 pounds for a 200-pound person) can make a difference in your triglycerides—and for your heart!
  • Control your calories. Consuming more calories than your body needs results in the extra calories being stored as fat (triglycerides) in the body. By eating what you need—not more—you'll help manage your weight and lower your triglycerides, too. Use the SparkPeople program to determine your daily calorie needs, and the Nutrition Tracker to keep your calories in check.
  • Avoid sugar and fast-digesting carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates (like white flour) and sugars in any form (sugar, corn syrup, natural sweeteners, honey, etc.) are more likely to be stored as fat (triglycerides), especially if eaten in excess. Limit your intake of added sugars and make sure that you're not overeating carbs, which should make up no more than 60 percent of your total calories each day. When making carbohydrate choices, choose fiber-rich, unprocessed foods as much as possible, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. These are slower-digesting and less likely to be stored as fat when compared to other carbohydrate sources.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet. Limit your daily cholesterol intake to no more than 200 milligrams and keep your saturated fat intake to less than 7% of your daily calories. Choose foods rich in heart-healthy fats, such as nuts, olive oil, seafood and avocadoes while limiting your intake of trans fats (hydrogenated oils). If you do drink alcohol, you may need to cut back. Small amounts of alcohol (which is high in calories and sugar and is often stored as fat) have been shown to elevate triglyceride levels, so cut back on drinking.
  • Exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most of all days of the week. Exercise boosts your HDL (good) cholesterol levels and lowers your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and your triglycerides. Plus, it helps you to burn extra calories and lose weight—both of which can reduce triglycerides in their own right. Get started with SparkPeople's Heart-Smart Workout Plan!
This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, MS, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.

American Heart Association. "Triglycerides," accessed March 2011.

Mayo Clinic. "Triglycerides: Why Do They Matter?," accessed March 2011.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Third Report of the Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults," accessed March 2011.