There is always something on TV or in the newspaper talking about cholesterol and the need to lower it to prevent heart disease, but why doesn’t the triglyceride get the same attention? An elevated triglyceride is just as much a risk factor, and is even an indicator for other possible medical problems such as diabetes or pancreatitis. So why not put warning signs on foods that could help lower this fatty substance known as a lipid in your blood? The basic answer is that too much of anything we consume is converted into triglyceride, and therefore it’s simply not what we eat that counts.
Triglyceride is the fat that is carried in the blood from the food we eat. Most of the fats we eat, including butter, margarine and oils, are in triglyceride form. Excess calories, alcohol or sugar in the body are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells throughout the body. The liver packages cholesterol with triglycerides and proteins as lipoproteins and transports it to sites throughout the body. An elevated triglyceride level increases the risk of heart disease. The guideline for a normal triglyceride level in healthy adults is less than 150 mg/dl
To turn an elevated triglyceride around is not simply avoiding types of fats ( important for lowering elevated cholesterol) but the amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates (sugar) you consume. This implies watching your calories, lose weight if greater than 25 body mass index, ( To check your body mass index look on the right-hand column for Resource Tools and click on Body Mass Index Calculator), and exercise to help control weight.
Being overweight places extra stress on your body in a variety of ways. Control the calories you consume to take action in managing your weight. It takes 3500 calories to equal 1 pound (lb) of body fat. Cutting back just 500 calories/day can promote a 1 lb weight loss/week. What does 500 calories look like? A 20-fluid-ounce bottle of regular cola plus one regular-sized candy bar equals approximately 500 calories. If you are overweight, just losing 5%-10% of your weight can significantly reduce your Triglyceride! For weight management, the key is assuring that your daily caloric intake does not exceed the amount of calories you burn off per day.
A Heart Healthy Diet is the most recommended program to follow. It is not a diet but a way of eating that is appropriate for anyone older than 2 years of age. A heart-healthy diet is low in saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol and full of fruits, vegetables, legumes like dry beans and peas, nuts, whole grain foods, and ﬁsh (preferably fatty at least two times per week) at an appropriate level of calories to help reduce triglycerides and LDL cholesterol level.
The American Heart Association (AHA) also recommends including oils and foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid such as flaxseed, canola, and soybean oils, walnuts and omega 3 eggs. The AHA does not recommend drug treatment to reach a normal triglyceride level. For those who need to lower their triglycerides, your physician may order omega 3 capsules. It is important to know that taking more than 4 gm should be done only under a physician’s care since it can increase the Low Density Lipoprotein or LDL, which is referred to as the bad cholesterol, in some people as well as cause excessive bleeding. The LDL should therefore be monitored on a monthly basis.
Limit alcohol intake. Even small amounts can lead to large changes in plasma triglyceride levels. Drinking more than three drinks a day has a direct toxic effect on the heart. Heavy drinking, particularly over time, can damage the heart and lead to high blood pressure, alcoholic cardiomyopathy (enlarged and weakened heart), congestive heart failure, and stroke. Heavy drinking puts more fat into the circulation in your body, raising your triglyceride level. That is why doctors will tell you, “If you don’t drink, don’t start.” Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink/day for a woman and two drinks/day for a man. One drink is equal to 12 fluid oz of beer or wine cooler, 5 fl oz wine, or 1.5fl oz of 80 proof liquor.
Exercise is a necessary component for weight management and overall health. Take it slow at first with just 10 to 15 minutes a day and gradually increase the time and intensity of your activity. Choose something you enjoy and can stick with, such as walking, swimming, or bike riding, and make it a daily habit. Also, add motion to every aspect of your day, but gradually so it won’t seem like much effort at all. This is particularly helpful for people who aren’t used to exercising, for those with a body mass index above 30, or those with medical conditions. Some suggestions are taking the stairs versus elevator, parking farther away, getting off the bus a few stops early, and walking instead of driving.
If you have family history of heart disease or diabetes keeping your triglyceride level down is vital. If you notice it is going up, review the checklist to see what you need to change:
- Body Mass index >25
- Eating excess calories especially sweetened dessert items
- Alcohol intake not in moderation
- Minimum exercise
It’s possible that your elevated triglyceride is hereditary and may require pharmacological therapy, but this is always the last step if lifestyle changes with weight management, diet and exercise do not work. Don’t wait for the doctor to tell you what to do, but make changes now!!
Signature by Joanne Slyter, registered dietitian living in Westminster, Colorado who does nutrition consulting and coaching