What Are Triglycerides?


Triglycerides are the primary form of fat in foods as well as the storage form of fat found in the body’s fat cells. Triglycerides also are found in blood. A high blood triglyceride level is called hypertriglyceridemia. Elevated triglycerides, along with other risk factors such as high blood cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, family history, smoking, and alcohol intake can increase the risk of developing heart disease.

When we think of the different kinds of fat in the diet we usually think of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. Even though these fats differ slightly, they are all triglycerides. Triglycerides are the primary form of stored concentrated energy in the body, providing approximately 3,500 calories of energy per pound of body fat. Along with providing an energy source, stored fats also serve to insulate the body and protect vital organs from trauma. Triglycerides also serve as carriers for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and the carotenoids such as beta-carotene.

Once eaten, triglycerides are routed to the liver where they are processed. Calories consumed in excess, whether from fat, carbohydrates, or protein will be converted to triglycerides by the liver and transported to adipose cells to be stored as body fat. When the body requires energy, specific hormones trigger the fat cells to release triglycerides to the blood where they then travel to the body’s cells to be converted to energy. Alcohol consumption can also increase the liver’s triglyceride production, thus elevating blood triglyceride levels. Different disease states, such as diabetes mellitus can also increase blood triglyceride levels.

Along with checking blood cholesterol levels, your physician may decide to also check your blood triglyceride levels. This is typically done if you are at risk for heart disease or other disease states associated with elevated triglyceride levels:

  • High total cholesterol levels
  • Two or more risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, family history of heart disease, or obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Circulatory disease

Many different factors affect blood triglyceride levels. They normally increase after eating and can also be affected by medications, hormones, alcohol intake, time of day, menstrual cycle, and recent exercise. For this reason, blood triglyceride measurements are done after an overnight food and alcohol fast. The American Heart Association defines hypertriglycerides as:

  • Normal triglycerides – Less than 200 mg/dL
  • Borderline-high triglycerides – 200 to 400 mg/dL
  • High triglycerides – 400 to 1000 mg/dL
  • Very high triglycerides – Greater than 1000 mg/dL

If you have elevated blood triglyceride levels, making healthful diet and lifestyle changes may help to bring your levels down to a more normal range. Many of the recommendations for reducing blood triglyceride levels are the same for lowering blood cholesterol levels:

  • If you are overweight, adopt a healthful eating plan to help reduce your total calories and reach your ideal weight.
  • Limit total fat intake to no more than 30 percent of total calories and less than 10 percent of those calories from saturated fat. Also, limit dietary cholesterol intake to no more than 300 mg/day.
  • Exercise regularly – exercise not only can reduce triglyceride levels but also raise HDL-blood cholesterol (the good cholesterol).
  • If you drink alcohol, reduce your intake considerably or to none at all. Even small amounts of alcohol can cause large changes in blood triglyceride levels.
  • Stop smoking.

For many, hypertriglyceridemia is a treatable condition. Drug therapy may be required if diet and lifestyle changes are not effective. It is important to be in the care of a physician and registered dietitian when trying to lower triglyceride levels.

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