Triglyceride is a fancy name for fat (they’re also referred to as lipids).
All the lipid-based foods we consume contain varying types of triglycerides, which enter the bloodstream after being broken down. These triglycerides are then burned as an energy source (a process called lipolysis), and whatever is left over is stored in fat cells, and sometimes in the liver.
Fat storage is an ingenious mechanism that was immensely important for our distant ancestors, because stored energy allows the body to go without food for long periods of time. Unfortunately, though, we eat much more and exercise much less than our ancestors.
The result is hypertriglyceridemia (high triglycerides); the conditions affects 25% of the American population, and nearly three million cases are diagnosed every year.
Elevated levels of triglycerides (over 200 mg/dL) can lead to serious and life-threatening health issues
Elevated levels of triglycerides (over 200 mg/dL) can lead to serious and life-threatening health issues, including pancreatitis, as well as increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease (due to hardening of the arteries).
You’re especially at risk for hypertriglyceridemia if you’re overweight or obese, have diabetes and aren’t properly managing the condition, consume alcohol regularly, or eat a high-calorie diet.
Regardless, though, taking measures to prevent or correct the condition is always a wise choice. Here are some simple lifestyle steps you can take to lower your triglycerides.
The triglyceride-healing lifestyle
If triglycerides in the bloodstream come from the food we consume, lowering them should be as simple as eating less fat, right? This was what scientists believed for a long while, but now we know that the truth is more complicated.
Eat the right kinds of fat. As we’ve discussed in other articles, there are “good” fats and “bad fats.” Monounsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil and avocados, are exceptionally healthful—studies have actually demonstrated that daily consumption of good fats can lead to a dramatic decline in triglycerides. Studies on consumption of high-quality polyunsaturated fats have yielded similar results.
Stay away form hydrogenated fats. While “good” fats are paradoxically helpful for triglyceride levels, hydrogenated fats (trans fats) are decidedly not helpful. Studies have demonstrated that these fats—commonly found in fried foods, snack foods, and baked goods—can raise triglyceride levels, trigger inflammation, and increase “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.
Then there are some fats about which no one can seem to agree, like coconut oil. While some studies suggest that the saturated fats in coconut oil can raise triglycerides, others clearly demonstrate that it can dramatically aid weight loss, a major factor in lowering triglycerides.
As always, moderation is key—don’t overdo it with any kind of fat, but remember that the healthful fats mentioned above a perfectly helpful and necessary part of a balanced diet.
Moderate carb and sugar consumption. This brings us to the other components of a balanced diet. When the connection between fat consumption and elevated triglycerides was first publicized, many people rallied under the banner of the old-school Food Pyramid (lots of carbs, fewer fats). But research has shown a high-carb diet is not the way to lower triglycerides.
The reason for this is simple: just like fats, the carbohydrates and sugars that your body doesn’t use for energy are also converted to triglycerides and stored in adipose tissue. In some cases, carbohydrate metabolism (glycolysis) is even more likely to lead to excess triglyceride storage than fat metabolism. Studies have shown that low-carb diets consistently lead to greater drops in triglyceride levels.
Studies have shown that low-carb diets consistently lead to greater drops in triglyceride levels
If you’re worried about cutting carbs out of your diet, here’s a tip: start by cutting out sugar, rather than healthful carbs like veggies, fruits, and whole grains.
High-fiber carbs are actually acutely beneficial for lowering triglycerides: one study demonstrated that a low-fiber diet caused triglycerides to increase by 45% in just six days, and others have shown high-fiber foods like rice bran and tree nuts actively help lower triglycerides.
Keep these healthful foods in your diet, and ditch packaged products with added sugar, replace sugary beverages with water, and minimize the use of sugar in your own cooking—research clearly shows that doing so can help lower your triglycerides.
Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight. Fitness is the coup de grace for high triglycerides—the importance of combining exercise with proper diet simply can’t be overstated.
Researchers have found that regular exercise can benefit HDL levels (the “good cholesterol”), which has an inverse relationship with triglycerides—so when HDL goes up, triglycerides tend to go down.
Additionally, regular exercise aids weight loss, which is primarily important for lowering triglycerides. Losing even 5-10% of your body weight can drop your triglyceride levels by 40 mg/dL. And the longer you stick with your exercise regimen, the greater improvement you’ll see.
The science of triglycerides may be complex, but the triglyceride-healing lifestyle doesn’t have to be. Here’s what it boils down to: eat a balanced diet of high-fiber fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, healthy fats, and plenty of water; don’t consume more calories than you need; and establish an exercise regimen and stick with it.