When it comes to understanding cholesterol, there are three main elements to consider; your LDL level, your HDL level and your triglyceride level. A simple fasting blood test will give you a clear indication of each of these. If your doctor is at all worried about your cholesterol level then they will arrange a cholesterol test for you. To put things simply, an elevated LDL level can lead to health problems such as heart disease, heart attack, angina and stroke. A high HDL level is often considered a good thing as this sort of cholesterol has a reputation for being protective and is referred to as “good” cholesterol. However, there is some recent evidence to suggest that HDL is not as good as we have been led to believe. Triglycerides are fats in the blood, if your triglyceride level is high then you may be at risk of heart disease.
What is the difference between cholesterol and triglycerides?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both lipids that circulate around our bodies in our blood, however their function is very different. Cholesterol builds cells and some hormones, triglycerides are used to provide energy. Although high triglycerides are linked to heart disease and coronary artery disease, there is some dispute over exactly what effect triglycerides themselves have on the heart. High triglyceride levels tend to coexist with low levels of HDL and high levels of LDL. It is thought that having high triglycerides could make certain risk factors much worse, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.
Where do triglycerides comes from?
Triglycerides can be found in meat, cooking oil and dairy products, around 95% of dietary fats are triglycerides. They are also made naturally by the liver. Whether they are ingested or formed naturally in the body, triglycerides will either be absorbed by cells and tissues and converted into energy or they will be stored in the body as fat. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, then it is likely that you will have a raised level of triglycerides in your blood.
What do blood test results mean?
As triglycerides stay in your body for around 2 hours after eating a meal, your doctor will usually advise you to fast overnight (or for 9-12 hours) and have the blood taken in the morning. This will give a more accurate reading of your usual triglyceride level. Your doctor will usually look for HDL and LDL levels too, they may refer to the blood test as a lipid panel or lipid profile.
- Normal – less than 1.7 millimoles per litre (mmol/L)
- Borderline – 1.8-2.2 mmol/L
- High – 2.3-5.6 mmol/L
- Very high – 5.7 mmol/L or more
Health conditions that cause an elevated level of triglycerides
In some cases, high levels of triglycerides may not be down to a poor diet and lack of exercise alone. There are a number of medical conditions that are associated with high levels of triglycerides. After a fatty meal, a healthy body will be able to clear away the triglycerides after a couple of hours. For anyone with conditions such as Lipoprotein Lipase Deficiency, Familial Combined Hyperlipidaemia or Type 3 Hyperlipidaemia this is not the case. Anyone with these illnesses will need medical care. In some cases an increased level of triglycerides may be due to pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome (a combination of symptoms including abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess waist fat and high triglycerides).
Achieving a normal triglyceride level
Sensible lifestyle choices can play an instrumental role in keeping your triglyceride level balanced. Regular exercise, a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight are all ways to keep your triglyceride level in check.
Even a loss of 5-10 lbs can substantially reduce your triglyceride level, although ideally you should aim for a BMI of under 25. A BMI of over 30 is considered obese and puts you at greater risk of numerous health conditions.
As well as eating fewer calories (bearing in mind that extra calories will be converted to triglycerides and then stored as fat), it is also wise to make a few changes to your diet. Opt for fatty fish (such as mackerel and salmon) rather than red meat. Research shows that taking fish oil supplements can also lower the level of triglycerides in the blood. It is also sensible to think about the fats in your diet, use healthier plant-based mono-unsaturated fats when cooking. Olive oil and walnut oil are good choices. Trying to limit empty calories (such as refined sugar and flour products) will also make a difference.
Alcoholic drinks are full of sugar and calories, so if you have any concerns about your triglyceride level then it is wise to cut back on alcohol or eliminate it from your diet all together.
Ideally we should all be exercising moderately for around 30 minute most days. If this is hard to schedule then break your exercise down into 10 minute chunks throughout the day. Small changes such as taking the stairs instead of the lift or walking short distances rather than taking the car, can make a difference. Regular exercise will help to lower your level of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol and boost “good” HDL cholesterol.
Thinking of the future
Although a high level of triglycerides alone is not necessarily a health concern, it is usually a symptom of an illness or a red flag pointing to a number of poor lifestyle choices. All of the lifestyle changes that help lower triglycerides will help you to stay healthy in a variety of different ways, which is why it is worth enjoying a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, limiting alcohol consumption, limiting your red meat consumption, watching your calories and including more oily fish in your diet.