When it comes to a healthy heart, blood pressure and blood cholesterol numbers usually take center stage. But did you know that triglycerides also matter?
When you eat, the energy (or calories) you get from food that aren’t immediately used by your body are converted into triglycerides (blood fats, or lipids) and stored in your fat cells. In between meals, certain hormones help shuttle triglycerides out of your fat cells to be used to for energy by the body.Having high triglycerides can wreak havoc with your arteries and make it tough for blood to flow through them to get to your heart and brain. This increases your risk for a heart attack, stroke, and heart disease.
Although genes play a role in determining your triglyceride level, being overweight and/or consuming a less than healthful diet are also factors. Having diabetes, hypothyroidism, and kidney or liver disease can also raise triglycerides to unhealthy levels.
Here’s how the American Heart Association classifies triglyceride levels:
Optimal: Up to 100 milligrams per deciliter;
Normal: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter;
Borderline High: 150 to 199 milligrams per deciliter;
High: 200 to 499 milligrams per deciliter;
Very High: 500 milligrams per deciliter or above.
If your triglycerides are borderline high to very high, don’t despair! Here are 5 tips to help you lower your levels and improve your health overall:
- Lose it to lower it. According to a recent American Heart Association (AHA) position paper in Circulation, losing 5 to 10 percent of body weight can help lower triglyceride levels by about 20 percent. Reducing portions of all foods and beverages—especially those that provide a lot of calories, fat and/or sugar but few nutrients—and increasing physical activity—especially aerobic-type activities like walking or swimming—can help you create a calorie deficit to promote slow, gradual weight loss.
- Go soft on sweets. According to Dr. Janet Brill, a registered dietitian and the author of Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease, along with excess calories, too many simple sugars in the diet are notorious triglyceride boosters. The AHA recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 100 calories for women or 150 calories for men. Replacing some added sugars and fructose with small amounts of unsaturated fats (for example, monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil, canola oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and avocado) can help reduce triglyceride levels, according to the AHA.
- Focus on fats. When asked if she could recommend one key food to include to lower triglycerides, Brill said, “Fish, fish and more fish!” She added, “The only nutrient proven to lower triglyceride levels are the long-chain omega-3 fish fats—EPA and DHA—found in large, fatty, cold water fish that swim deep down in the sea.” Fish high in omega-3’s (but also low in mercury) include salmon, anchovies, herring, mackerel,sardines, and trout. Having fatty fish more often, especially in place of red meat and poultry, not only provides heart-healthy fats, but can lower intake of less healthful saturated fats.
- Make some simple swaps. Brill also recommends replacing some refined breads, cereals, pasta and crackers with whole grain versions to provide more dietary fiber (which helps prevent a quick rise and fall in blood sugar level) and boost overall nutrient intake.
- Put a cork in it. If you have a high triglyceride level but rather not ban the bubbly—which has been shown to raise triglyceride levels—play it safe and cap intake to no more than one drink per day—that’s 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Brill recommends you "going red" when choosing spirits. She adds, “Red wine has ten times the antioxidant content of white wine--hence is the best choice for pumping up your daily antioxidant intake.”
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