You may not have heard of triglycerides (TC) but if you’re watching your cholesterol levels, it would benefit you to keep a check on TC levels too. "Triglycerides are often ignored, because they don't have the name 'cholesterol' attached to them," says Dr Sarah Jarvis, chair of the Health Care Committee at HEART UK. "But they are still connected with an increased risk of heart disease."
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat, but unlike saturated or trans fats, you can’t limit or cut them out of your diet because your body produces them from what you eat. Regardless of what you put in your mouth – a sandwich, a chicken salad or a cake – if you don’t burn the calories you’ve ingested, your body will turn the rest into triglycerides and store them in fat cells.
You do need some of that fat storage – like leftovers at the back of the fridge, triglycerides are there to provide your body with energy when you’re hungry. The problem stems from when your body gets so many calories that triglycerides aren’t dealt with efficiently, and they’re left to float freely around in your bloodstream, sticking to artery walls and potentially causing heart disease.
What do triglycerides do to your health?
Although high levels of LDL, the 'bad' cholesterol, puts you in at risk of heart disease, adding high triglyceride levels put you in a much higher risk category. More worrying, you may have normal levels of LDL and yet have high TC levels – and still be at substantial risk of heart disease. Triglycerides are rather like submarines in the battle with heart disease – they often go unnoticed but can prove deadly.
Another dangerous and sneaky side-effect of high TC levels is that you may find yourself overeating, putting yourself at even greater risk of heart disease, not to mention other health conditions related to being overweight such as diabetes, cancer, liver disease. Triglycerides floating around in your bloodstream block the path of leptin, the 'hunger suppression chemical'. Low levels of leptin in your brain stimulate feelings of hunger. So even though you may have eaten a three-course meal, your body will be telling you to head back to the fridge for more.
The triglyceride triggers
Anything above 2mmol/L is considered a high level of triglycerides, according to HEART UK. What could be causing it? "Factors that make you particularly prone to high levels of triglycerides include drinking excess alcohol and being overweight, particularly around the tummy," says Dr Jarvis. An unhealthy diet high in refined carbohydrates such as white bread and biscuits, for example, along with full-fat dairy products, will raise TC levels. Being overweight with a BMI of more than 30 puts you in the at-risk category too. (Go to www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/healthyweightcalculator.aspx to check yours.) And drinking large quantities of alcohol, whether regularly or in a one-off binge, will also cause a spike in TC levels in your bloodstream.
For unknown reasons, triglycerides present a bigger health problem for women than men. Although women’s levels tend to rise more slowly as they age, when compared to men, they are more likely to cause heart disease. A woman’s risk of heart disease rises three times faster than a man’s with the same increase in TC levels.
What to do if your triglyceride levels are high?
When having your cholesterol checked at your GP surgery, ask to be told your triglyceride level – many doctors fail to mention this important figure. And prepare for the test: "The triglyceride levels in your blood go up after you eat, so to get an accurate measurement you should fast for 12 hours beforehand," advises Dr Jarvis.
Don’t panic if your levels are higher than normal. You can get them under control with some lifestyle changes. Intense exercise, where you sweat or get out of breath, is ideal as it burns up energy, leaving fewer triglycerides floating around spare in your body. And a few simple swaps in your diet can have an immediate and dramatic effect too:
"If you usually eat white bread, biscuits or cakes, have wholegrain bread, a high-fibre cereal bar, or even a square of chocolate instead," says registered nutritionist Carina Norris. "It will satisfy your sweet craving without you ingesting excess fat and carbohydrates.
"If you often drink full-fat milk or eat ice cream – the sweet stuff is mostly triglycerides! – have skimmed milk or a frozen yogurt instead," advises Norris.
"If you regularly eat bacon, fatty cuts of meat, eat oily fish such as sardines," says Norris. "And opt for free-range chicken which is generally less fatty than its sedentary cousin."