We hear a lot about cholesterol and blood pressure, but there is another health marker that you need to pay attention to, and that is your triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides (fat in the bloodstream) raise your risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Use exercise, diet, and specific foods to lower your triglycerides. Here's exactly what to eat and avoid to keep your triglyceride levels healthy.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat, or lipid, found in your blood. Your body fat is made up of these cells, and when they are circulating in the blood it usually means that you have taken in more calories than the body can use at the moment, so your body converts them into little fat globes that can safely travel through the bloodstream to be stored as fat. Your body will pull these out when it needs energy between meals.

The condition of having high triglycerides is called Hypertriglyceridemia is common in the US, and usually comes from eating too many high-carbohydrate foods and being sedentary.

What causes high triglycerides?

High triglycerides result when you eat more calories than your body needs, especially carbs. Luckily, there are foods to eat and ones to avoid that will lower your triglyceride count, which is essential for anyone who wants to be healthier today and in the future. Here is everything you need to know about triglycerides and how to lower your count if it's high.
"Elevated triglycerides may contribute to cardiovascular disease, particularly hardening of the arteries, explains Nicole Osinga, RD, author of The Beet's Plant-Based Diet. "The good news is that your diet and lifestyle can help to manage your triglyceride levels. Eating a plant-based diet will provide high amounts of fiber, and low amounts of fat (particularly saturated fat) that can help to lower triglycerides over time."

What is the difference between high triglycerides and high cholesterol?

Triglycerides and cholesterol are different types of lipids in the bloodstream. And you can have high triglycerides without having high cholesterol. Both are types of fat but each of these lipids functions differently and too much of either can lead to different health conditions.

According to the Mayo Clinic: 

  • Triglycerides store unused calories and provide your body with energy.
  • Cholesterol is used to build cells and certain hormones.

Too much cholesterol, especially low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or so-called "bad" cholesterol, causes plaque to build up in the blood vessels, which act as tiny calcified deposits that lodge into the wall of the arteries and cause blockages that raise blood pressure and potentially cut off vital oxygen to the heart or brain, leading to heart attack or stroke.

High triglycerides cause hardening of the arteries and increase your risk of stroke or heart attack by making it harder for blood to flow through the stiff vessel walls, which in tandem with high cholesterol is a double health threat. High triglycerides can also lead to chronic inflammation of the pancreas, or pancreatitis. But it is possible to have high triglycerides without high cholesterol, so these are considered separate conditions.

What are normal levels of healthy triglycerides?

How do you know if you have high triglycerides? Your doctor needs to take a blood test and look at what's called a lipid panel, which tells him or her which fats are circulating in your blood.

  • Normal triglycerides: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood or mg/dL
  • Borderline high triglycerides:150–199 mg/dL
  • Very high triglycerides: 500 or higher mg/dL
  • High triglycerides: 200–499 mg/dL

Why should you care about triglycerides

High triglycerides can lead to conditions such as fat around the waist, and while no one wants belly fat, it is more of a symptom than a health problem in itself. Storing fat in your middle section is often a sign that there are other health conditions at work and together they can make it harder to lose weight, and elevate your risk for chronic illnesses.

Stubborn belly fat can be a precursor for diseases such as metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure, high triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and high cholesterol levels. It can make it harder to lose weight as your insulin resistance goes up and your body stores calories as fat, rather than burning them.

High triglycerides can also be a sign of:

  • Prediabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormones

How to Lower Triglycerides

  • Avoid refined carbs. Added sugar and simple carbohydrates, in snacks, processed foods, white bread, pasta or rice can increase triglycerides.
  • Lose extra weight. Doctors advise patients that if they are overweight, losing unwanted pounds can help bring triglyceride levels down. When you eat more than your body needs the extra calories are converted into triglycerides and stored as fat.
  • Avoid saturated fat. Avoid animal fat in red meat, dairy, and other forms of saturated fat that are also in coconut and palm oils.
  • Choose Omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based sources of omega-3s include chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, edamame, kidney beans, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Because of its high sugar content, alcohol is to be avoided for anyone with high triglyceride levels or who is trying to bring them under control.

Best Foods to Eat to Lower Triglycerides

The good news: You can lower your triglycerides quickly through lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and eating fewer calories to lose weight. A diet that is free of added sugar and simple carbs, and that avoids all animal fat is the best way to start, according to experts.

In one randomized control study, green tea was found to lower blood lipids including triglycerides, in the lab. "Green tea catechins can significantly reduce the levels of plasma triglycerides, total cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol" the study found.  Other than drinking green tea, here are foods that have been shown to lower your triglyceride levels, as long as you also reduce your calories and stay physically active.

What to eat to lower your triglycerides

  • Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and arugula
  • Vegetables such as zucchini, butternut squash, green beans, and eggplant
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, or cauliflower
  • Fruits, especially citrus, and berries fruits that are lower in fructose
  • Low-fat or no-fat dairy alternatives such as almond or soy milk
  • High-fiber whole grains, such as quinoa, barley, and brown rice
  • Algal oil, made from certain marine algae that are high in omega-3s

According to cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn, paying attention to your triglycerides is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Author of The Plant-Based Solution, Kahn, a vegan for the past 40 years, is an advocate of avoiding animal products, exercising daily, and taking work breaks to march in place, move, or even consider investing in a standing treadmill desk.

Dr. Kahn's advice on triglycerides:

  • "The importance of elevated triglycerides, or trigs as docs call them, has been debated back and forth for decades but they increasingly are known to promote heart disease when elevated (particularly when the HDL is low leading to a trig/HDL cholesterol ratio elevated above 3).
  • "You can lower your trigs with green tea, more omega-3 foods like ground flax seeds, and more whole food plant meals low or absent added sugars.
  • "Avoid any sweetened drinks and sweet alcoholic beverages.
  • "Exercise, and shooting for an ideal weight and waistline finish the list of the hard work it takes to keep trigs low and healthy."

Bottom Line: Know your triglycerides and keep them low with diet and exercise

We pay attention to cholesterol and blood pressure but triglycerides are an important health marker. High levels raise your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Use exercise and these foods to lower yours. Here's what to eat to keep your triglyceride levels healthy.

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