The world of nutrition has so many different terms that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of everything you’re theoretically supposed to know. Fat. Carbohydrates. Protein. Cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids. It’s hard to keep tabs on all the various components of what you’re eating to make sure it’s all healthy. One such substance that often gets overlooked or missed in the forest of terminology is triglycerides; controlling one’s intake of these little molecules is actually a major factor in the quest to lose weight and reduce your chances of cardiovascular disease and other conditions like type 2 diabetes and kidney disease.
What are Triglycerides?
A triglyceride is a particular type of chemical compound called an ester that includes 3 fatty acids and a glycerol molecule; but in non-chemistry terms, triglycerides are the primary component of body fat. In addition to storing energy in fat deposits (adipose tissue), triglycerides can also be found in the bloodstream where they can be used as a source of energy for cells.
The main source of triglycerides is the food we eat, especially in butter, oil, and various fatty foods. When we eat foods that contain triglycerides, these compounds are either used for energy or stored as fat for later consumption. The other major source of triglycerides is the liver; when we eat more food than we need to keep our bodily systems functioning, the liver produces triglycerides to store the excess energy as fat tissue.
There are a number of different types of triglycerides, but the two main categories are saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are thus named because their chemical structure is saturated with hydrogen atoms; these fats are generally found in animal products. Unsaturated fats, not surprisingly, typically have fewer hydrogen atoms as well as multiple double bonds and are generally found in plant products.
Why do High Triglycerides Matter?
Most people have heard of the idea that having a high triglyceride level is essentially bad, but why is it bad? The basic idea behind the complex chemistry is that triglycerides in the form of saturated fats tend to increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Otherwise known as the “bad” kind of cholesterol, LDL cholesterol in high enough quantities is linked to heart disease and atherosclerosis.
Research on the precise connection between triglycerides and cholesterol is still actively being pursued, but studies have shown that saturated fats can negatively affect the liver. The liver has special cells with LDL receptors that bond to LDL cholesterol molecules and carry them away as waste products, but saturated fats have been shown to disrupt this activity and cause cholesterol molecules to build up.
What’s the Difference Between Triglycerides and Cholesterol?
It’s worth noting that even though high cholesterol levels and high triglyceride levels are both considered bad and contributors to obesity, they are actually very different substances. The biggest difference between the two is that triglycerides are actual fats while cholesterol is a component used by the body for the building of cell membranes as well as the synthesis of certain necessary materials (like some hormones and vitamin D).
Neither triglycerides nor cholesterol are inherently bad, but in sufficiently high quantities they can present health risks. As noted earlier, triglycerides in the form of saturated fat keep the liver from being able to effectively process LDL cholesterol. When this happens, excess LDL cholesterol circulates through the blood. Over time, this waxy substance can build up and harden in the arteries, eventually causing dangerous blockages that can lead to a heart attack.
What’s the Best Way to Lower Triglycerides?
Though researchers are still investigating the specific ways triglycerides interact with the liver and increase LDL cholesterol, there has long been sufficient evidence to suggest that a diet high in triglycerides is bad for your heart health. Because of this, healthcare professionals and nutritionists universally recommend finding ways to reduce the saturated fat content of the foods we eat as well as making necessary lifestyle changes. The following are some tips for lowering triglyceride levels:
- Avoid Sugar: The kind of sugar in many baked goods, sweets, and fruit juice is considered a simple carbohydrate. Fructose and refined white flour are both loaded with simple carbohydrates that the body tends to quickly store as triglycerides once ingested. Limiting these kinds of foods is one of the easiest ways to lower triglyceride levels.
- Pick the Right Fats: The type of fat you use is another choice that can make a difference. Swapping the saturated fats found in animal products for the unsaturated fats found in plant products is an easy way to make a difference. For example, try cooking with canola or olive oil rather than butter or lard. You also need to watch out for trans fats like corn syrup; these unhealthy and processed substances are often labeled “partially hydrogenated” and are added to solidify some foods.
- Reduce Alcohol Consumption: Alcohol contains sugars that can elevate triglyceride levels in a similar way as fatty or sugary foods. Heavy alcohol consumption is linked with high cholesterol, heart disease, and a whole host of medical problems.
- Increase Exercise: Doctors generally recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week in order to keep your heart healthy. Regular exercise can both decrease triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol.
- Lose Weight: Carrying around extra fat tissue is overall bad for your health, and losing some of those pounds can actually go a long way toward lowering triglycerides. Even if regular exercise is currently too much of a challenge, simply reducing your caloric intake can help triglyceride levels.
- Medication: For those whose triglyceride levels are already too high, some medications may be prescribed to help lower the levels:
- Fish oil
Beyond reducing saturated fats—and by extension, LDL cholesterol—there are a variety of food choices that can also increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Also known as the “good” kind of cholesterol, HDL functions as a counterbalance to LDL. HDL actually binds to LDL and carries the molecules back to the liver where they can be broken down and eliminated from the body. Including the following foods in your diet can actually promote an increase in HDL cholesterol over time:
- Whole grains (brown rice, bran, cereals)
- Fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, albacore tuna, sardines)
- Flax seeds and flaxseed oil
- Nuts (almonds, pistachios, peanuts)
- Red wine (in moderation)
- Fruits and vegetables high in fiber (apples, berries, leafy greens, beans)
Speak with a Weight Loss Professional
Having elevated triglyceride levels (also referred to as hypertriglyceridemia) should be a concern for anyone who is obese or overweight. The risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis never seem imminent, but over the long term they can become serious and potentially fatal problems. If you have elevated triglycerides or have been trying hard to lose weight, the time may be right to meet with a professional.
At NEW You, we understand the challenges of trying to lose weight, and we know many people struggle to burn off the pounds with just healthy eating and exercise alone. This is why NEW You offers a variety of weight loss procedures that can help you tackle your weight problem permanently. Our non-surgical options provide the results of weight loss surgery without the actual surgery. Contact us today to make a consultation appointment.