Understanding Triglycerides

Test tube filled with blood and cholesterol test form document
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Obesity in itself is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. As it turns out, obesity is also a risk factor for having high triglycerides, which in turn have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

What Are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a form of fat in the blood; biochemically speaking, they are triple chains of fatty acids, and they have been associated with risk for cardiovascular disease.

As a key component of the lipid, or cholesterol, profile, any time your physician checks your cholesterol panel as part of your bloodwork, the results will include a measurement of your triglyceride level.

What Is the Right Level for Triglycerides?

As with LDL cholesterol (often known as the “bad cholesterol” because of its role in clogging arteries), with triglycerides, lower is better.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that everyone have a fasting triglyceride level less than 150 mg/dL or a non-fasting level of less than 200 mg/dL. (Fasting means having nothing to eat or drink except water and black tea or coffee for at least eight hours, although 10 to 12 hours is even better and more accurate.)

The AHA states that an optimal fasting triglyceride level would be less than 100 mg/dL.

Very high triglyceride levels of 500 mg/dL or more are dangerous because they can cause a serious, sometimes deadly, inflammation of the pancreas (known as pancreatitis).

What Causes High Triglycerides?

Average triglyceride levels have been on the rise in the United States for over three decades.

Triglycerides are highly influenced by our diet, and foods that are high in added sugars or refined carbohydrates (like white bread and white pasta) raise triglyceride levels.

Alcohol intake of any kind is also known to raise triglyceride levels.

Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, obesity and hypothyroidism, are known to be associated with high triglyceride levels. Some medications, such as certain oral contraceptive pills (OCPs), can also raise triglyceride levels.

Additionally, there are genetic (inherited) disorders of cholesterol that specifically cause high triglyceride levels due to a genetic mutation. Even in these disorders, however, dietary intake of foods known to elevate triglyceride levels plays a major role in how high the levels go.

Be sure you have a look at all your cholesterol panel numbers yourself, and ask your physician to go over them with you, too, so that you can be sure you understand their implications for your health and whether or not you need to take measures to improve any of the components of your lipid panel.

Sources:

Stone NJ, Robinson J, Lichtenstein AH, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the treatment of blood cholesterol to reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular risk in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2013.

Miller M, Stone NJ, Ballantyne C, et al. Triglycerides and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011;123:2292-2333.

Berry JD, Dyer A, Cai X, Garside, et al. Lifetime risks of cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med 2012;366:321-329.

Goff DC, Lloyd-Jones DM, Bennett G, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the assessment of cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association task force on practice guidelines. Circulation 2013.

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