Know Your Trigs

Have very high triglycerides? Follow these simple steps to lower them—and keep heart disease at bay.

Deborah Pike Olsen
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You might worry about cholesterol, but don’t forget about triglycerides (trigs)—fat in your blood that’s used for energy. While your body needs some trigs to function, excessive amounts can be unhealthy. Here’s what you need to know:

Where do triglycerides come from?
After you eat, any fats your body doesn’t use immediately are converted to trigs and stored in fat cells, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Trigs give you the energy you need to keep going between meals.

Why should I worry about my trig level?
Very high triglycerides—also known as hypertriglyceridemia—can lead to heart disease. They can also lead to a condition called metabolic syndrome, which occurs when you have a combination of heart-related health problems such as abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, low “good” cholesterol and insulin resistance. The syndrome raises your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Hypertriglyceridemia usually has no symptoms, so be sure to get your cholesterol checked at least once every five years (possibly more often if your level is high), says the AHA. The blood test includes a trig measurement.

How much is too much?
According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, a very high level is 500 mg/dL or higher—and that’s a problem. Nearly one-third of adults have elevated trig levels, according to the AHA.

What can I do if I have very high trigs?
Simple lifestyle changes can decrease trig levels by 50% or more, according to a recent AHA scientific statement on triglycerides and cardiovascular disease. Medication can also be effective. Work with your healthcare provider to come up with a plan that’s right for you, and try these recommendations from the AHA:

  • If you’re overweight, try to pare some excess pounds. Losing just 5% to 10% of your body weight can lower your triglyceride level by 20%.
  • Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Substitute healthy fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, such as canola oil and olive oil—for saturated fats.
  • Limit alcohol, especially if you have a very high trig level. Women should have no more than one drink per day; men should have no more than two.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruit, veggies, nuts, whole grains and olive oil, can help lower trig levels by 10% to 15%.
  • Limit added sugars to fewer than 100 calories daily if you’re a woman and 150 calories if you’re a man. Cut back by drinking no more than 36 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages per week.
  • Limit fructose from both processed foods and fruits to less than 50 to 100 grams per day. Fruits low in fructose include cantaloupe, grapefruit, strawberries, peaches and bananas.
  • Work out for at least 30 minutes on five or more days each week. Aim for moderate-intensity activities, such as brisk walking, swimming or biking. Exercise may help lower your trigs by 20% to 30%.
  • Focus on fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as Atlantic herring, salmon, sardines and white tuna. Fatty acids may help lower your trig levels by 5% to 10%. 
January 2013