Written by: Martha Weintraub, MPH, MSW, RD
Fit4D Nutrition Coach
Triglycerides have been getting a lot of attention lately in the health community and on the news. If you’ve been told you had high triglycerides or that you need to have your levels checked, then read on to find out more.
What exactly are triglycerides and why do they matter?
Triglycerides are a form of blood fat that can increase your risk of heart disease if your levels are too high. Studies have shown that many people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes have high triglyceride levels (greater than 200 mg/dL). This is often associated with low levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and a small, dense form of bad (LDL) cholesterol, both of which can lead to clogged arteries. Very high triglycerides (over 1000 mg/dL) can also be associated with pancreatitis, a very painful and serious illness.
What number is recommended for triglycerides and what’s too high?
Triglycerides are measured by having a blood draw done in a medical lab, usually after a 12 hour fast. They are generally measured when you have your cholesterol checked, so you don’t usually need to have an extra blood draw done (though you should confirm this with your doctor). Talk to your doctor about how often your cholesterol and triglycerides should be checked and what your goals should be. The American Diabetes Association recommends that those with diabetes have a fasting lipid profile annually. If your lipid levels are at goal, your doctor may recommend going 2 years before retesting.
For most people, triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dL. Fortunately, if your triglycerides are higher than this, there are a number of things you can do to help bring them down to a healthier level. And the good news is that the more of these things you do, the bigger the reduction in triglycerides you are likely to see!
What can I do to lower my triglyceride level?
Weight management: Just a small amount of weight loss can make a significant difference in your blood fat levels. Losing 5-10% of your body weight can lower triglycerides significantly. This means that a person weighing 200 pounds would need to lose just 10 to 20 pounds before seeing big improvements in their numbers.
Physical activity: Exercise can help lower triglycerides. The goal is to participate in moderate exercise 5 times a week for at least 30 minutes a session. Be sure to choose an activity that fits your lifestyle and preferences. Brisk walking is perfect for people who love being outdoors but if you’d rather work out at the gym or use a videotape or piece of equipment at home, remember that you’re more likely to actually do an activity if it’s one you enjoy! Don’t be afraid to think out of the box – what about dance lessons, gardening or playing soccer with your kids several times a week?
Blood glucose management: Excess glucose molecules in the blood and low levels of insulin can both affect the way the body processes your foods. If your blood sugar is not well managed, it is more difficult to keep your triglyceride level in a healthy range. Talk to your Healthcare Provider to be sure you are managing your blood glucose correctly.
Alcohol: Alcohol can cause triglycerides to increase. It’s recommended that women should include no more than 1 alcoholic beverage in any one day and men no more than 2 in any one day. One “drink” means 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor. If your triglycerides are very high (over 500 mg/dL) you may find that you need to avoid alcohol completely.
Eat a Mediterranean-style diet: Optimizing your eating pattern can lower triglyceride levels by as much as 50%. A Mediterranean-style diet has been found to be very effective.
Try to avoid:
- Foods high in saturated and trans fats such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and processed baked goods like packaged desserts and cookies (these will raise cholesterol and triglycerides)
- Foods high in sugars and refined starches, such as white breads, pasta, sweet cereals, desserts, and sweetened drinks.
- Whole grains such as brown rice and barley; whole grain products including breads and whole wheat pasta; and foods made from 100% whole grains, and high fiber cereals
- Legumes such as pinto, black and white beans; lentils and split peas; and bean dishes such as soups and chili
- Plenty of non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, etc. (These supply many nutrients with few calories and little effect on blood sugar.)
- Lean protein, especially fish which has beneficial omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, canned tuna and sardines
- Low fat or fat free dairy products including milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Whole fruit rather than fruit juice
- Small amounts of nuts such as walnuts, pistachios and almonds
- And when cooking with oil, be sure to choose vegetables oils such as olive oil or canola oil.
This type of eating style can help keep your heart healthy and your diabetes well managed. Click here for more information on the Mediterranean Diet. And best of all, you’ll have a variety of delicious foods to choose from!
What does a great sample dinner menu look like?
Instead of: Choose this:
3 ounces roast beef 4 ounces grilled salmon
1 cup white rice ½ cup brown rice and
1 tsp butter ½ cup black beans
1 cup canned peaches 1 large vegetable salad
1 can diet soda with balsamic vinegar
and olive oil dressing
1 cup steamed broccoli
1 small apple
1 cup of tea
If your triglyceride levels are very high (greater than 500 mg/dL), your healthcare provider may make additional diet recommendations such as limiting your fruit intake, reducing total fat intake, and avoiding alcohol altogether.
Take medication as prescribed: If you are not able to reach your triglyceride goal with lifestyle changes, your doctor may recommend medication. If this is the case, take the medication as prescribed. Always feel free to ask your doctor or pharmacist any questions you may have about your medications.
Is there any reason not to make changes to lower triglyceride levels?
All of the tips mentioned here should not only help with your lipid levels but may also lead to improvements in blood glucose management and overall general health. Any steps that you take towards achieving a healthy weight, keeping active, eating well, and following medical recommendations will provide numerous benefits. Keeping your triglycerides at a healthy level is just one more way of taking good care of yourself!
Has your Healthcare provider encouraged you to keep up-to-date on all of your medical tests? Do you have any questions about any of the information or terms in this article? Please share in the comments.
Where can I find more information?
- Research Corner: New Triglyceride Guidelines
- Holiday Planning for Diabetes Part 2:How to Prevent Roller Coaster Blood Sugars During the Holidays
- Research Corner: Detemir controls blood glucose without the weight gain
- Research Corner: Timing of Medications Can Help Improve Blood Pressure
- Research Corner: Modest weight loss reduces heart disease risk in people who have diabetes