Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, saturated fat, and unsaturated fat — sometimes it seems like you need a program to keep track of all the fat players in the story of heart disease.
In some ways, triglycerides are the easiest to understand. Simply put, triglycerides are fat in the blood and are used to provide energy to the body. If you have extra triglycerides, they are stored in different places in case they are needed later. High triglyceride levels have been linked to a greater chance for heart disease. Just what your triglyceride levels mean and how much lowering triglycerides reduces heart disease risk is sometimes less clear.
What Are Triglycerides?
Triglycerides are important to human life and are the main form of fat in the body. When you think of fat developing and being stored in your hips or belly, you’re thinking of triglycerides. Consider these things:
Triglycerides are the end product of digesting and breaking down fats in meals. Some triglycerides are made in the body from other energy sources such as carbohydrates.
Triglycerides are measured using a common test called a lipid panel. It’s the same blood test that checks “good” and “bad” cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone over the age of 20 should get a lipid panel to measure cholesterol and triglycerides at least every five years.
Triglyceride levels are checked after an overnight fast. Fat from a meal can artificially raise the triglyceride levels on the test.
What Are Normal and High Triglyceride Levels?
The National Cholesterol Education Program sets guidelines for triglyceride levels:
Normal triglycerides means there are less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Borderline high triglycerides = 150 to 199 mg/dL.
High triglycerides = 200 to 499 mg/dL.
Very high triglycerides = 500 mg/dL or higher.
High triglyceride levels may lead to heart disease, especially in people with low levels of “good” cholesterol and high levels of “bad” cholesterol, and in people with type 2 diabetes. Experts disagree, though, on just how bad of an effect high triglyceride levels by themselves have on the heart.
Some of the confusion stems from the fact that high triglycerides have a tendency to appear with other risk factors. We do know that a low level of good cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. We also know that blood tests for triglycerides can show some variability.
Triglycerides and Lowering Triglyceride Levels
Many experts believe that high triglycerides may be a sign of other heart disease risk factors. That is, high triglyceride levels could multiply the bad effects of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Some research also suggests that high triglycerides are a more important risk factor for women than for men, although this is also disputed.
One point is clear, though: A healthy diet and exercise plan can lower triglyceride levels, improve cholesterol, and lower the risk of heart disease.