What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood, and they are the most common type of fat found in the body. The body uses this fat for energy but when there is extra, it gets stored as body fat for later use. In fact, most of the fatty tissue in your body is made up of triglycerides.
Triglycerides are produced by the breakdown of fats in your foods, and the body also produces triglycerides on its own from carbohydrates.
The problem is that high triglyceride levels are linked to an increased risk for heart disease. Risk factors that can increase lead to higher triglyceride levels include being overweight or obese, diabetes, and smoking.
How do triglycerides function in the body?
Triglycerides, like other fats, store energy, provide insulation, and protect vital organs. The main function of triglycerides is to provide energy. Triglycerides contain more than twice the energy of carbohydrates or proteins. When we eat, the fat we consume is broken down during digestion and it enters the bloodstream. Some of the fat gets used right away for our energy needs, and the extra are stored in our fat cells throughout the body for use later.
Alcohol in high amounts increases triglyceride levels in some people.
Alcohol can actually increase triglyceride levels in some people. Many of the triglycerides in the blood come from the breakdown of the foods we eat, the body also produces them on its own. Alcohol can stimulate production of triglycerides, and individuals who already have high triglycerides, or who are at risk for high triglycerides, should eliminate or limit the alcohol they consume. Both high triglycerides and excess alcohol consumption can increase the risk for heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends that if you drink to limit alcohol intake to a maximum of two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. If you don't drink, don't start.
What are normal triglyceride levels?
A triglyceride level measures the amount of this type of fat in your blood. Normal triglyceride levels vary by age and sex. Elevated triglyceride levels can be an indicator of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which leads to increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Guidelines for triglyceride levels are set by The National Cholesterol Education Program.
- Normal triglycerides means there are less than 150milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
- Borderline high triglycerides = 150 to 199 mg/dL.
- High triglycerides = 200 to 499 mg/dL.
- Very high triglycerides = 500 mg/dL or higher.
Do sugars cause high triglycerides?
Consuming too many sugars in the diet – this includes added sugars, refined grains, and alcohol – can increase triglyceride levels in the bloodstream. Everyone can benefit from limiting the intake of added sugars, but the American Heart Association recommended people who have high triglycerides limit their daily sugar intake to no more than 5 to 10 percent of their daily calorie intake. For most women, this means a maximum of 100 calories per day from added sugar, and 150 calories daily for men.
Other than calories, sugar has no nutritional benefit. Instead, focus on foods high in fiber such a fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Added sugar in the diet also contributes to being overweight or obese. Remember, excess triglycerides are stored as fat. In general, the more body fat you have, the higher your triglyceride levels will be. Losing weight is one way to help lower triglycerides.
Overweight, obesity, and diabetes are common reasons for high triglycerides.
There are many risk factors for high triglycerides, including:
- Genetic factors
- Being overweight or obese
- Excess alcohol intake
- Diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and liver disease
- Medications such diuretics, blood pressure medications, prednisone, estrogens and testosterone
- A diet high in fat or refined carbohydrates
High triglycerides increase the risk of heart disease.
In addition to increased risk for heart disease, high triglycerides can lead to increased risk for stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA). In fact, high triglycerides alone can indicate increased stroke risk.
Diet, exercise, and limiting or avoiding alcohol can lower triglycerides.
Diet, exercise, and limiting or avoiding alcohol can lower triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends lifestyle changes as a way to keep your triglycerides in the normal range, or to lower them if they are high.
- Lose weight. Dropping 5-10% of your weight can result in a 20% drop in triglycerides.
- Eat a healthy diet. Choose fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Avoid simple sugars and added sugars, especially fructose, which can raise triglyceride levels.
- Avoid saturated and trans fats, which can raise triglycerides, and instead choose unsaturated fats such as omega-3s which can lower them.
- Avoid or limit alcohol.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity can lower triglyceride levels and help you lose weight if you are overweight.
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Harvard Health Publications. A promising new treatment for high triglycerides.
American Heart Association. What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Cholesterol in the Blood.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences. What Do Fats Do in the Body?
University of Colorado. Cholesterol and Triglycerides.
American Heart Association. Triglycerides: Frequently Asked Questions.
American Heart Association. Lifestyle Changes for Heart Attack Prevention.
National Cholesterol Education Program. ATP III Guidelines At-A-Glance Quick Desk Reference.
Kaiser Permanente. Familial Hypertriglyceridemia.
Medscape. Higher Triglyceride Levels Linked to Increased Risk for Stroke.
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