Blood Fats: Taming Your Triglycerides

By Amy Campbell, MS, RD, CDE

Your health care provider has probably talked to you about your cholesterol level, and if it’s high, there are many ways to help bring it down. Has he or she also talked with you about your triglyceride level? If so, you might be wondering exactly what this is.

What are triglycerides? The term “triglyceride” is used to describe a specific type of fat, or lipid, found in the blood. Triglycerides are the form in which fat is found in some of the food that you eat and in your body. Triglycerides are the way fat is carried in your body to be either used for fuel or stored as fat. Any calories from the food you eat that aren’t used for fuel right away are packaged as triglycerides and stored in your fat cells. Your liver also makes triglycerides. Your triglyceride level is measured by a blood test and is usually measured along with your total cholesterol, HDL and LDL cholesterol (called a lipid profile). You should not eat anything 12 hours before having your triglycerides measured.

 What causes high triglycerides?

Several factors can cause high triglycerides. These include:

  • Age, the older you are, the higher your triglycerides will be
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not being physically active
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating a very high carbohydrate diet
  • Certain conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, liver disease and low thyroid
  • Some medications, including diuretics (water pills), steroids and birth control pills
  • Family history

10 WAYS To tame triglycerides

  1. Lose weight if you need to. Losing even a few pounds can help lower your triglycerides, as well as your blood glucose if you have diabetes.
  2. Manage your blood glucose levels. If you have diabetes and your blood glucose levels have been high, work with your healthcare team to help bring them down.
  3. Get regular physical activity. Being physically active on most days of the week not only helps lower triglycerides, it helps you manage your blood glucose, lowers your risk for heart disease, helps with weight control and can even relieve stress. Physical activity does not have to be strenuous. Talk to your health care provider about what kind and how much activity would be best for you, but keep in mind that even taking a walk every day can help.
  4. Stop smoking, if you do smoke. Studies show that smoking can raise triglyceride levels.
  5. Eat less saturated and trans fats.  Both saturated fat, found in butter, shortening, red meat and whole milk, and trans fat, found in margarines, fast foods and certain snack foods, can raise your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and put you at risk for heart disease. Instead, use heart healthy fats, such as olive and canola oil, and trans fat free margarine. Also include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout), avocados, nuts and seeds in your eating plan. Watch your portion sizes, however, since all fats are very high in calories.
  6. Eat less sugar and sweets. Sugar and sweets, such as cookies, candy and cake, can raise triglycerides in some people. Sugar substitutes, including saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) are okay to use for most people.
  7. Drink less alcohol. If your triglycerides are very high, it’s a good idea to cut back on or even stop drinking alcohol, whether it’s beer, wine or mixed drinks.
  8. Cut back on carbohydrates. Eating too much carbohydrate can raise triglyceride levels in some people. You should not stop eating carbohydrates, but you may need to eat smaller portions of refined carbohydrate foods, such as white bread, white pasta and white rice.
  9. Fill up on fiber. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods, such as whole wheat bread, bran cereals, oatmeal and brown rice. Eating high fiber foods every day can help you lower your triglyceride levels.
  10. Try meatless meals once in a while. Tofu, tempeh and soy “burgers” and “hot dogs” are tasty, healthy ways to help you cut back on red meat. And soy has been shown to lower triglyceride levels, too.

Are triglycerides harmful?

If the amount of triglycerides in your blood is too high, you may be at risk for heart disease. Very high triglycerides may also cause pancreatitis, a serious inflammation of the pancreas. If you have diabetes and your triglycerides are high, you may also have high blood glucose levels. Insulin, a hormone that lowers blood glucose, also lowers triglycerides, so high blood glucose and high triglycerides are often seen together. In some cases, high triglycerides are linked to undiagnosed diabetes.

What’s a good triglyceride level?

Both the American Diabetes Association and the National Cholesterol Education Program recommend a triglyceride level of 150 mg/dL or lower. How can you lower your triglyceride level?

The good news is that there are many steps you can take to lower your triglycerides if they’re too high. Triglycerides tend to drop fairly quickly, compared to cholesterol. Be sure you talk with your healthcare team about why your triglycerides are high and how you can get them down. In the meantime, see the information to your left for some ways to get started.

What about medicine?

You may need to take medicine to help lower your triglycerides if lifestyle changes aren’t enough. There are several different kinds of drugs that can help. These include statins (which also lower cholesterol levels), nicotinic acid (a type of niacin), fibrates, and prescription strength omega-3 fatty acids. If you do need to take medicine, your provider will check your blood triglycerides regularly to see how the medicine is working.

Fish Oil Supplements

The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times per week. The kind of fat found in fish, called omega-3 fatty acids, can help lower blood triglyceride levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids also come in capsule form for people who don’t like or can’t eat fish. Your healthcare provider may suggest you take omega-3 fatty acids in a supplement to lower your triglyceride levels.  However, you should only take these under his or her care.  Tell your provider if you are taking omega-3 fatty acids or any other kind of dietary supplement.

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Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN—an award-winning RD, certified diabetes educator, and past national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the author of The African American Guide to Living Well With Diabetes, which received the Favorably Reviewed designation from the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes.

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Dr. Beverly S. Adler, PhD, CDE (aka “Dr. Bev”) is a clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator, author and speaker. She specializes treating the emotional issues of people with diabetes. In her private practice, she provides individual, family and/or group therapy utilizing a cognitive behavior therapy orientation, combined with a spiritual approach. Her goal is to empower her patients to manage their diabetes.

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