Triglycerides are the most common fat in the body. Most of the foods that people eat, whether from animal or plant sources, can have an impact on the levels of triglycerides in the blood.
There are many different types of fats, from polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil to the saturated fats found in red meat. They all contribute to triglyceride levels in the body, but they do so in different ways.
When a person eats more calories than their body needs, the body stores these extra calories in the form of triglyceride fats. Then later, when the body needs more energy, it consumes these fats instead of needing more calories.
Triglycerides are important for health, but high levels of triglycerides in the body can lead to conditions such as heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Taking steps to lower triglyceride levels and reduce other risk factors can decrease a person’s chances of developing heart disease.
It is important to understand triglyceride levels in order to adjust them. The normal range for triglyceride levels is considered to be less than 150 milligrams per deciliter.
At-risk levels are anywhere from 150-199 milligrams per deciliter, and high triglyceride levels range from 200-499 milligrams per deciliter. Anything above 500 milligrams per deciliter is considered very high.
Ways to lower triglyceride levels
High triglyceride levels range from 200 milligrams per deciliter and above.
There are many ways to reduce triglyceride levels safely. These can depend on the reasons why triglyceride levels are high in the first place.
If an individual regularly consumes more calories than the body can burn, it will result in an excess of triglycerides in the body. One way to lower triglyceride levels in the blood is to reduce the overall number of calories ingested every day.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there is evidence that a 5-10 percent weight loss can decrease triglyceride levels by 20 percent. The decrease in triglycerides is directly related to losing weight.
What to eat
In order to lower triglyceride levels, an individual must watch what they eat and adopt a nutrient-rich diet. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds is a great way to increase the nutrients consumed, while also reducing calories.
A diet that is good for the heart and the blood also includes reducing the amount of sodium, refined grains, added sugars, and what are known as solid fats in the diet.
Solid fats come from meat, full-fat dairy products, and some tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil. These foods contain trans fats and saturated fats.
Trans fats and saturated fats raise triglyceride levels, so people should try to replace them wherever possible. Unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), actually lower triglyceride levels.
Omega-3 fats found in cod liver oil, cold-water fish, such as salmon and sardines, and flaxseeds are great ways to add PUFAs to a diet. For example, instead of a steak or hamburger, which are high in saturated fats, people can opt for a filet of salmon or a tuna sandwich.
Animal products, such as lean meats, skinned poultry, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and seafood are also good options.
Individuals should limit their total carbohydrate intake to below 60 percent of their recommended daily calorie allowance. Diets with a carbohydrate intake above 60 percent are associated with a rise in triglyceride levels.
Ways to avoid carbohydrates include, for example, choosing lean burgers wrapped in lettuce instead of a high-carb bun. For dessert, opting for fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries instead of sugary baked goods can reduce sugar cravings while also lowering overall carb intake.
The types of carbohydrates in the diet can also contribute to triglyceride levels. Foods high in simple sugars, especially refined fructose, are known to raise triglyceride levels.
Added sugars may lead to high triglyceride levels.
Drinks make a large contribution to overall carbohydrate intake. Fruit drinks, soft drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages are some of the main sources of added sugars in the diet. Added sugars should be avoided to help reduce triglyceride levels.
Added sugar comes in many forms, including:
- White sugar
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice or cane syrup
- Corn sweetener or corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Syrups, such as maple, agave, and molasses
Taking steps to avoid drinks containing added sugars can greatly reduce overall calories. Every 4 grams of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of sugar. The recommended daily maximum sugar intake for women is 24 grams (6 teaspoons) or 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men.
Instead of drinks that contain high levels of added sugars, people can opt for low-calorie drinks, such as water or tea. On a warm day, instead of reaching for a soft drink, a splash of 100 percent fruit juice to a glass of sparkling water is a better option.
Alcohol also has a direct effect on triglyceride levels in some people. In people with high triglyceride levels, refraining from drinking alcohol is a helpful step to reducing triglycerides.
People should work directly with their healthcare provider to gradually make any changes to the diet, and be certain there are no complications with any medicines they are taking.
Physical activity also plays an important role in reducing triglyceride levels. Burning calories ensures that more triglycerides from within the body are being used up.
Any exercise is beneficial, but the effects of exercise will vary based on initial triglyceride levels, the amount of exercise, and the level of intensity of the exercise. A 30-minute walk each day is a great way to begin, as is engaging in low-stress activities, such as cycling or swimming.
The AHA recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day, 5 days a week.
Why are triglyceride levels important?
If the triglyceride levels in the body are too high, the risk of certain diseases and disorders is also increased. According to a study posted to the Lancet Diabetes Endocrinology, high triglyceride levels play a role in cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis.
This can happen because high triglyceride levels in the blood can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Plaque is a combination of cholesterol, triglyceride fats, calcium, cellular waste, and fibrin, which is the material the body uses for clotting.
Plaque buildup increases the risk of heart diseases, as the buildup blocks the normal flow of blood in the arteries. Plaque may also break off, and the sudden clot formed can cause a stroke or heart attack. Triglycerides and cholesterol levels make up two of the most important things to monitor for a healthy heart.
There is also an increased risk of damage to the pancreas if the levels of triglycerides get too high.
Causes of high triglyceride levels
The most common causes of high triglyceride levels relate to diet and metabolism. A study posted to Nutrients listed the most common contributing factors of high triglyceride levels. These include:
- Family genes
- High-calorie diet
- High-fat diet
- Alcohol consumption
- Diabetes (mainly type 2)
- Renal diseases such as uremia
- Some medications, such as oral estrogen, corticosteroids, antiretroviral drugs, and tamoxifen, among others
Statistically, some groups of people are more at risk for high triglyceride levels than others. These groups include:
- People who have developed heart disease before the age of 50
- Women, especially pregnant women or women taking estrogen
- People who are obese
- Mexican-American men
- Native Americans