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Why Knowing Your Triglyceride Number Matters

10/17/2016 04:27pm ET | Updated October 18, 2017
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Many of us can rattle off our latest cholesterol number at the drop of a hat. Keeping an eye on your cholesterol is important but there's another number you also should have memorized - your triglycerides. However, if asked about our triglyceride number, most of us have little to know idea what it is. That's too bad because our triglyceride number reveals quite a bit of how healthy we are or not. The good news is there are many steps we can take to get it in a healthier range starting today.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides (TG) are the most common type of fat in the body and are an important measure of heart health. TGs come from certain foods and they are also produced naturally in the body by the liver. When you eat, calories that are not used as energy are converted into TGs and stored as fat. Eating more calories than we need or what we burn, can lead to high triglycerides known as hypertriglyceridemia.

What's the difference between TGs and cholesterol?

TGs and cholesterol both circulate throughout your body in your bloodstream but are separate types of fat. TGs take calories that have not been used and will store those calories to provide your body with energy. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells of the body. It is used to make some hormones, vitamin D, and substances that digest our food.

Why do high triglycerides matter?

A high triglyceride level may contribute to atherosclerosis or thickening of the artery walls which increases the risk of a stroke, heart attack and heart disease. If the TG number is above 1000 mg/dl, this is a risk factor for acute pancreatitis.

Other medical conditions that could be attributed to a high TG level are poorly controlled type 2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, liver or kidney disease, or rare genetic conditions that affect how your body converts fat to energy. Certain medications such as birth control pills, beta blockers, diuretics, or steroids could also cause a side effect of high TG levels.

Who is at risk for high TGs?

Several factors can cause high TGs, including genetics, lifestyle habits, and medical history. Examples of poor lifestyle habits include not getting enough exercise, being overweight, smoking, eating too much sugar, eating large meals at one time, and a heavy intake of saturated and trans fats. Some medical conditions that put you at risk for high TGs are poorly controlled diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease. Other risk factors may include certain medicines, drinking a lot of alcohol, and age.

How are TGs measured?

Your healthcare provider will give you a blood test to measure the amount of lipids (fat) and cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol - LDL the "bad cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein - HDL the "good" cholesterol) in your blood. These levels are expressed in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) of blood.

How to know if your TGs are high

Once a blood test is done, known as a blood lipid profile, your healthcare provider will give you a number for your TG level. To get a good reading you will need to fast for nine to 12 hours before blood can be drawn for an accurate TG reading. Below are the different levels and numbers that you will need to know what range your TGs are in:
• Optimal - less than 100 mg/dl
• Normal - less than 150 mg/dl
• Borderline high - 150-199 mg/dl
• High - 200-499 mg/dl
• Very high - more than 500 mg/dl

What can a person do to lower their TGs?

With some changes to your diet and lifestyle, TGs can be lowered. Here are some steps to take to do this:

• Exercise regularly: Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week or more.

• Limit sugar and starchy foods like white bread and rice: Choose unsweetened foods and drinks, and try to eat more whole grains such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice.

• Reduce fructose a type of sugar studies have shown leading to high triglycerides. High-fructose corn syrup is a main contributor of fructose along with table sugar which has a chemical composition composed of about 50 percent fructose. Fruit naturally contains fructose giving fruit its sweet taste. Dried fruits such as raisins and dates have the most fructose whereas peaches, cantaloupe, grapefruit, strawberries, and bananas have the least. Limit total fructose intake to no more than 100 grams a day - but preferably less than 50. Find fructose content of food here.

• Avoid alcohol: It can affect the liver, which increase TG production. If you drink red wine for heart health, limit the amount to 5 ounces per day or eliminate it all together.

• Try eliminating unhealthy fats from the diet. Unhealthy fats are saturated fats found in meats, whole milk and butter. Also avoid trans fats found in commercially prepared cookies, cake mixes, etc. Choose instead foods with healthier fats like monounsaturated fats found in olive, canola, and peanut oils or polyunsaturated fats found in sesame, corn, sunflower, and fish oils.

• Eat more fiber: Include fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.

• Eat more fish: Certain fish like tuna and salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce TGs.

• If you're overweight, lose some weight. A loss of just 5-7% can make a difference.

• Your doctor may decide to use a statin to lower your TGs. Depending on the dose, statins can lower TGs by 20%-40%.

• Nicotinic acid (also known as niacin, one of the B vitamins) can lower TGs and increase HDL. Some people may notice facial flushing when they take niacin but using a slow-release formula may help with that problem.

• Fibrates such as gemfibrozil (Lopid) and fenofibrate (Tricor) are an alternative to niacin. They may reduce TGs by 60% but they may also increase LDL levels.

• Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil capsules are another TG lowering option. Some studies have shown taking three grams of fish oil daily may reduce TGs by 30%.

Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel's Medical A-Team Learn more at roboticoncology.com. Visit Dr. Samadi's blog at SamadiMD.com. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest and Facebook.