You need triglycerides to supply your body with energy, but having too much can increase your risk of heart disease. Although triglyceride levels may fluctuate as a result of medical conditions or the fat and sugar in your diet, it's important to monitor your levels. If you find that your triglycerides are above normal, making changes in the foods you eat and your level of activity can help restore your reading to a desirable range.
You can't lower triglycerides in a week or even a month. The time it takes to reduce triglycerides in your body depends on your diet, weight, medical condition and ability to get sufficient exercise. Committing to an ongoing, long-term lifestyle change is the best way to approach reducing your levels and keeping them in check.
Cholesterol vs. Triglycerides
Cholesterol and triglycerides both belong to the fat family, but they have different functions. Cholesterol, a waxy substance that surrounds cells, is produced by the liver from animal foods. According to the Cleveland Clinic, cholesterol and triglycerides are unable to mix with blood in their pure form. So the liver combines them with proteins called lipoproteins, which enables them to move throughout the bloodstream.
There are three types of lipoproteins — low density lipoproteins (LDL), very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. HDL cholesterol removes LDL from the arteries. High triglyceride levels are often seen with low HDL levels. Optimally, your triglycerides level should be less than 100 mg/dL, according to the American Heart Association.
Working out should be a key part of your strategy for dropping dangerously high triglyceride levels. Burning calories can effectively cause fat cells to break triglycerides into glycerol and fatty acids. Some of these compounds are absorbed into your bloodstream and liver — the rest is used by your muscles, says Scientific American.
A combination of aerobic and resistance training is the most beneficial when your goal is lowering triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, biking or gardening — or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as jogging, swimming or hiking uphill — per week.
Including salmon, tuna, sardines or other fatty fish in your diet will not only provide the benefits from unsaturated fatty acids, but the omega-3 fatty acids can lower triglycerides, says the Mayo Clinic. A 2018 study appearing in the journal Circulation concluded that eating one to two meals a week of seafood reduces the risks associated with heart disease, especially when seafood replaces less-healthy foods.
If you drink, reduce your consumption of alcohol to no more than one drink per day, which would be 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of spirits or 12 ounces of beer. If you have very high triglycerides, you should avoid alcohol altogether. Alcohol can increase blood triglycerides by stimulating the liver to produce more fat, as shown by a study published in the journal Alcohol in 2013. The study compared cholesterol levels of nondrinkers, occasional heavy drinkers and regular heavy drinkers and found elevated levels of triglycerides in all groups.
Cut the Sugar
Eating too many simple sugars, like those found in refined grains and added sugars, raises triglyceride levels. Choose fruits that are low in fructose, such as cantaloupe, grapefruit, strawberries, bananas and peaches, and moderate your intake of high-sugar fruits such as watermelon and dried fruit.
The American Heart Association says women should limit their sugar intake to less than 100 calories a day or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories a day or about 9 teaspoons. An added benefit of decreasing sugar intake is that it may result in weight loss. The American Heart Association also reports that a 5 to 10 percent weight loss results in a 20 percent decrease in triglycerides. Try to focus on complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber, like vegetables and whole grains.
Go Nuts for Nuts
Nuts contain concentrated fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats that work together to lower blood triglycerides. There's a benefit to incorporating nuts into your diet, including almonds, pecans, cashews, walnuts and Brazil nuts. Researchers examined 61 studies to analyze the effect of nuts on the risk of major cardiovascular disease. The results, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015 indicated that each serving of tree nuts decreased triglycerides by 2.2 mg/dL.
Forgo the Fat
Trans fats, like margarine, and saturated fats, including fatty red meats, poultry skin, lard and some full-fat dairy products, can elevate triglyceride levels more than leaner cuts of meat and unsaturated fats, like peanut oil, olive oil, avocados and low-fat dairy products, according to LiveScience. Avoid processed foods made with trans fats such as those often found in restaurant fried foods and commercially prepared baked goods.
- Scientific American: When You Lose Weight, Where Does It Go?
- American Heart Association: American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids
- Mayo Clinic: Omega-3 in Fish: How Eating Fish Helps Your Heart
- AHA Journals: Circulation: Seafood Long-Chain n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association
- Alcohol: Associations Between Heavy Alcohol Drinking and Lipid-Related Indices in Middle-Aged Men
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Effects of Tree Nuts on Blood Lipids, Apolipoproteins, and Blood Pressure
- American Heart Association: Triglycerides: Frequently Asked Questions
- Cleveland Clinic: Triglycerides & Heart Health
- University of Colorado Denver: Cholesterol and Triglycerides
- American Heart Association: Added Sugars
- LiveScience: What Are Triglycerides?