Triglycerides: Why They Matter and How to Lower Them

by Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Professional

Triglycerides are another measure of health that you may hear mentioned in conversations with your medical team about your blood cholesterol. It is commonly drawn at the same time as blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels are even used to calculate those cholesterol levels. Although they are drawn with others and used to calculate other labs, triglyceride levels show us another portion of our health picture.

I've answered several questions related to triglycerides. These questions range from "What are triglycerides?" to "My triglycerides are 400, do I need to worry?" on to "Help, my triglycerides are 1200, how do I fix this?" We'll answer all these questions and dig deep into what triglycerides are and how to lower them.

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat. Actually, they're the most common type of fat in foods and in your body. They are also a common energy source for the body. When we eat in excess, consuming more calories then we are currently burning, our bodies store that excess energy in the form of triglycerides to tap into later. The trouble comes when we continue to eat in excess and the need for the stored energy never occurs. Essentially, triglycerides are the substance of the fat cells in your body.

What Do Triglycerides Have to Do with Cholesterol?

When you see your MD, he or she may order a "lipid panel" (lipid is a fancy term for fat). From the lipid panel you will learn your total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides. In order to calculate your total cholesterol, we add up the various types of cholesterol present in the blood. Keep in mind, the higher the number of different types of cholesterol, the higher your total cholesterol calculation will be.

Total cholesterol = HDL + LDL + VLDL

Well, what in the world is VLDL? VLDL is an acronym for Very Low Density Lipoproteins, another "bad" type of cholesterol that is solely used to calculate your total cholesterol number. Triglycerides are used to calculate VLDL levels in your blood.

VLDL = Triglycerides x 20 percent

The liver uses triglycerides to fuel cholesterol production. So, if you eat a high fat (triglyceride) diet, the liver will increase its' production of cholesterol and put more cholesterol out into your blood. This leads to higher amounts of total cholesterol, VLDL, and triglycerides circulating in your body.

What Is a Normal Triglyceride Level?

You want your triglycerides to be below 150 mg/dL. Borderline high triglycerides are from 150-199 mg/dL. Triglyceride levels indicate high risk for heart disease above 200 mg/dL.

What Can You Do to Lower Triglycerides?

1. Limit simple sugars.

Unlike other types of cholesterol, triglycerides are affected by sugars you eat. You need to limit foods such as soft drinks, candy, baked goods, syrup, table sugar, jelly, and honey. A high intake of fruit juice can also raise triglyceride levels since juice contains a high content of natural sugars.

2. Limit alcohol.

If your triglycerides are borderline high or high risk, discuss your alcohol intake with your MD. My recommendation for borderline high (200-500 mg/dL) is to limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks per day for men. One drink equals 12 ounces beer, 4 oz wine, or 1 ½ ounces liquor. If your triglyceride level is high risk (great than 500 mg/dL) I recommend NO alcohol. Again, discuss your situation with your MD.

3. Lose weight and/or maintain a healthy weight.

Many times weight loss alone will lower your triglycerides. Losing as little as 10% body weight could drop your triglycerides back to the normal range.

4. Choose a low-fat diet.

To achieve lower triglyceride levels, maintain a dietary intake of 30 percent or less of total calories coming from fat. A healthy diet for normal triglyceride levels should consist of whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean meat.

5. Increase your physical activity.

Boosting your activity can lower your triglycerides up to 40%. If you're not currently active, talk to your MD before starting an activity program. To reduce triglycerides, be physically active at least 30 minutes on 3 or more days each week. The more activity the better.

Triglycerides aren't all bad. They provide efficient energy storage, cushion your organs, transport certain vitamins, and keep you warm by providing insulation. What's important is to keep them under control.

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Nelson, RD, LN

Lisa Nelson RD, a registered dietitian since 1999, provides step-by-step guidance to lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, so you can live life and enjoy your family for years to come. Lisa's passion for health comes from her own family history of heart disease, so she doesn't dispense trendy treatments; Lisa practices what she teaches in her own daily life. Because her own health is the foundation of her expertise, you can trust that Lisa will make it truly possible for you to see dramatic changes in your health, without unrealistic fads or impossibly difficult techniques.