Optimizing Your Triglycerides
En Español (Spanish Version)

Many authorities advise more aggressive treatment of high triglycerides. Here is a rundown on these blood fats and why improving them is important for your health.

What Are Triglycerides?
Triglycerides are the chemical form most fats take in the body. They have a backbone consisting of a glycerol molecule to which three fatty acid molecules are attached. All glycerol molecules are the same, but the fatty acids may vary greatly. The types of fatty acids that are attached to the triglyceride determine whether it is a saturated, trans, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fat. These triglycerides come from fats in the foods you eat or they are made from other energy sources, like carbohydrates. When you eat a meal, the calories your body isn't using right away are converted into triglycerides and stored in your body's fat cells. When your body needs energy between meals, triglycerides are released from fat tissue to be used for making energy.

Importance for Health
Having too much triglyceride in your blood can adversely affect your health in several ways. Extremely high triglyceride levels can trigger an attack of pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, an abdominal organ that secretes digestive enzymes.

Research has also identified high triglycerides as an important risk factor for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke, or hardening of the arteries. Though the data are not as well established as for high cholesterol, it's a huge issue since coronary heart disease causes nearly 600,000 deaths each year and is the leading cause of death in the US.

Desirable Range
After you have gotten the results from a fasting blood fat profile, you can compare your triglyceride score with what experts have to say about these values:

Triglyceride Level (milligrams/deciliter [mg/d]) Classificationless than 150Normal150-199Borderline high200-499High500 and greaterVery high
Risk Factors for High Triglycerides
If your triglyceride level is not normal, you and your doctor may want to search for a treatable cause. Factors that can increase your risk of high triglycerides include:

  • Sex—Men are more susceptible than women. After menopause, a woman's risk increases.
  • Age—The risk of high triglycerides increases with age.
  • Genetic disorders, including a family history of high triglycerides or diabetes
  • Lifestyle factors such as:
  • Medical disorders, such as:
  • Certain drugs such as:
    • Immunosuppressive medications
    • Estrogen
    • Retinoids
    • Beta-blockers and diuretics
Lifestyle Therapy
Treatment for abnormal triglyceride levels usually involves lifestyle changes. Saturated fat should make up less than 7% of the calories you consume.

Most saturated fat should be replaced with healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids is especially important. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, trout, and tuna) and certain plant sources, including flax seeds, canola oil, and walnut oil. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice each week. Taking fish oil capsules can also help lower triglyceride levels.

Weight loss also helps lower your triglyceride levels, as can limiting alcohol intake, quitting smoking, and getting regular, moderate exercise. If you are already at risk for heart disease, talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Drug Therapy
When lifestyle measures fail to control triglyceride levels, your doctor may advise lowering your triglycerides with the help of medication. Drug treatment may also be advised if you have diabetes or another chronic disease associated with coronary artery disease. In addition to fish oil capsules, medications such as nicotinic acid, fibrates, or statins can be used to help optimize your triglycerides.

American Heart Association

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

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Last Reviewed July 2014

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