Triglyceride is just a fancy word for fat — the fat in our bodies is stored in the form of triglycerides. Triglycerides are found in foods and manufactured in our bodies. Normal triglyceride levels are defined as less than 150 mg/dL; 150 to 199 is considered borderline high; 200 to 499 is high; and 500 or higher is officially called very high. To me, anything over 150 is a red flag indicating my client needs to take immediate steps to get the situation under control.
High triglyceride levels make blood thicker and stickier, which means that it is more likely to form clots. Studies have shown that triglyceride levels are associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke — in both men and women — alone or in combination with other risk factors (high triglycerides combined with high LDL cholesterol can be a particularly deadly combination). For example, in one ground–breaking study, high triglycerides alone increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 14 percent in men, and by 37 percent in women. But when the test subjects also had low HDL cholesterol (that’s the good cholesterol) and other risk factors, high triglycerides increased the risk of disease by 32 percent in men and 76 percent in women.
What Factors Can Increase Triglycerides?
As with cholesterol, eating too much of the wrong kinds of fats will raise your blood triglycerides. Therefore, it’s important to restrict the amounts of saturated fats and trans fats you allow into your diet. Triglyceride levels can also shoot up after eating foods that are high in carbohydrates or after drinking alcohol. That’s why triglyceride blood tests require an overnight fast. If you have elevated triglycerides, it’s especially important to avoid sugary and refined carbohydrates, including sugar, honey, and other sweeteners, soda and other sugary drinks, candy, baked goods, and anything made with white (refined or enriched) flour, including white bread, rolls, cereals, buns, pastries, regular pasta, and white rice. You’ll also want to limit dried fruit and fruit juice since they’re dense in simple sugar. All of these low–quality carbs cause a sudden rise in insulin, which may lead to a spike in triglycerides.
Triglycerides can also become elevated as a reaction to having diabetes, hypothyroidism, or kidney disease. As with most other heart–related factors, being overweight and inactive also contribute to abnormal triglycerides. And unfortunately, some people have a genetic predisposition that causes them to manufacture way too much triglycerides on their own, no matter how carefully they eat.
How Can You Lower Your Triglyceride Levels?
If you are diagnosed with high triglycerides, it’s important to take action. There are several things you can do to help lower your triglyceride levels and improve your heart health:
- Lose weight if you are overweight. There is a clear correlation between obesity and high triglycerides — the heavier people are, the higher their triglyceride levels are likely to be. The good news is that losing weight can significantly lower triglycerides. In a large study of individuals with type 2 diabetes, those assigned to the “lifestyle intervention group” — which involved counseling, a low–calorie meal plan, and customized exercise program — lost 8.6% of their body weight and lowered their triglyceride levels by more than 16%. If you’re overweight, find a weight loss plan that works for you and commit to shedding the pounds and getting healthier.
- Reduce the amount of saturated fat and trans fat in your diet. Start by avoiding or dramatically limiting butter, cream cheese, lard, sour cream, doughnuts, cakes, cookies, candy bars, regular ice cream, fried foods, pizza, cheese sauce, cream–based sauces and salad dressings, high–fat meats (including fatty hamburgers, bologna, pepperoni, sausage, bacon, salami, pastrami, spareribs, and hot dogs), high–fat cuts of beef and pork, and whole-milk dairy products. Other ways to cut back:
- Choose lean meats only (including skinless chicken and turkey, lean beef, lean pork), fish, and reduced–fat or fat–free dairy products. Experiment with adding whole soy foods to your diet. Although soy itself may not reduce risk of heart disease, it replaces hazardous animal fats with healthier proteins. Choose high–quality soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame (whole soybeans).
- Always remove skin from poultry.
- Prepare foods by baking, roasting, broiling, boiling, poaching, steaming, grilling, or stir–frying in vegetable oil.
- Most stick margarines contain trans fats, and trans fats are also found in some packaged baked goods, potato chips, snack foods, fried foods, and fast food that use or create hydrogenated oils. (All food labels must now list the amount of trans fats, right after the amount of saturated fats — good news for consumers. As a result, many food companies have now reformulated their products to be trans fat free…many, but not all! So it’s still just as important to read labels and make sure the packaged foods you buy don’t contain trans fats.) If you use margarine, purchase soft-tub margarine spreads that contain 0 grams trans fats and don’t list any partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. By substituting olive oil or vegetable oil for trans fats in just 2 percent of your daily calories, you can reduce your risk of heart disease by 53 percent. There is no safe amount of trans fats, so try to keep them as far from your plate as possible.
- Avoid foods that are concentrated in sugar (even dried fruit and fruit juice). Sugary foods can elevate triglyceride levels in the blood, so keep them to a bare minimum.
- Swap out refined carbohydrates for whole grains. Refined carbohydrates — like white rice, regular pasta, and anything made with white or “enriched” flour (including white bread, rolls, cereals, buns, and crackers) — raise blood sugar and insulin levels more than fiber-rich whole grains. Higher insulin levels, in turn, can lead to a higher rise in triglycerides after a meal. So, make the switch to whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, brown or wild rice, and whole grain versions of cereals, crackers, and other bread products. However, it’s important to know that individuals with high triglycerides should moderate even their intake of high–quality starches (since all starches raise blood sugar) — I recommend 1 to 2 servings per meal.
- Cut way back on alcohol. If you have high triglycerides, alcohol should be considered a rare treat — if you indulge at all, since even small amounts of alcohol can dramatically increase triglyceride levels.
- Incorporate omega-3 fats. Heart–healthy fish oils are especially rich in omega–3 fatty acids. In multiple studies over the past two decades, people who ate diets high in omega–3s had 30 to 40 percent reductions in heart disease. Although we don’t yet know why fish oil works so well, there are several possibilities. Omega–3s seem to reduce inflammation, reduce high blood pressure, decrease triglycerides, raise HDL cholesterol, and make blood thinner and less sticky so it is less likely to clot. It’s as close to a food prescription for heart health as it gets. If you have high triglycerides, I recommend eating at least three servings of one of the omega–3–rich fish every week (fatty fish is the most concentrated food form of omega three fats). If you cannot manage to eat that much fish, speak with your physician about taking fish oil capsules, which offer similar benefits.
The best foods for omega–3 fatty acids include wild salmon (fresh, canned), herring, mackerel (not king), sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout, and Pacific oysters. Non-fish sources of omega–3 fats include omega–3–fortified eggs, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, butternuts (white walnuts), seaweed, walnut oil, canola oil, and soybeans.
- Quit smoking. Smoking causes inflammation, not just in your lungs, but throughout your body. Inflammation can contribute to atherosclerosis, blood clots, and risk of heart attack. Smoking makes all heart health indicators worse. If you have high cholesterol, high triglycerides, or high blood pressure, smoking magnifies the danger.
- Become more physically active. Even moderate exercise can help improve cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. Aerobic exercise seems to be able to stop the sharp rise of triglycerides after eating, perhaps because of a decrease in the amount of triglyceride released by the liver, or because active muscle clears triglycerides out of the blood stream more quickly than inactive muscle. If you haven’t exercised regularly (or at all) for years, I recommend starting slowly, by walking at an easy pace for 15 minutes a day. Then, as you feel more comfortable, increase the amount. Your ultimate goal should be at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, at least five days a week.