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Triglycerides - Predictor of Heart Disease
Written By : Mark Rosenberg, MD 
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Most people are familiar with blood pressure and cholesterol. They are important measures that provide doctors with a lot of information about your health and disease risk. When it comes to cardiovascular disease, these numbers warn if your heart is working too hard to pump blood throughout your body and alert to the presence of excessive fatty substances. There is a third number, however, that anyone concerned about heart health must pay attention to. I'm referring to triglyceride level, a lesser known, but important measure of heart health.

What are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a form of fat found both in the body and food. Our bodies get them directly from the food we eat, and also by converting other energy sources like carbohydrates into triglycerides. When calories we consume are not used immediately for energy, they are stored in fat cells as triglycerides. When we need that stored up energy, perhaps between meals, our hormones cause the cells to release triglycerides.

If you regularly eat more calories than your body burns, you may have elevated triglyceride levels. You may be overweight, as well. Triglycerides are often mixed up with cholesterol. Both are fats stored in the body, but they are not the same. Triglycerides supply energy for your body, while cholesterol is used for building cells. Both fats are essential for your body to function, but as you'll see, too much of these substances may be dangerous.

Triglycerides and Heart Disease

High triglyceride levels are a risk factor for heart disease. Although the exact reason is uncertain, elevated triglycerides may cause hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis, which is thickening of the artery walls. Both conditions increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

To measure your triglyceride levels, a doctor will do a lipid profile, which measures the amount of fat in the blood plasma. This test also measures cholesterol levels. Normal triglycerides are less than 150; borderline-high are 150 to 199; high are 200 to 499; and very high are 500 and above.

High triglycerides may be a sign of other problems associated with stroke and heart disease. For example, people with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome or obesity may exhibit unhealthy levels. High triglycerides may also be the result of liver or kidney disease. Some medications may be responsible for higher than normal levels. These include beta blockers, diuretics, birth control pills and tamoxifen.

Healthy Answers for High Triglycerides

Fortunately the main way to treat high triglycerides is through dietary and lifestyle changes. First and foremost, it is important to strive for a healthy weight. Talk to your doctor about the diet plan that is best for your individual needs. Any successful diet is based on the idea of burning more calories than you take in from food and beverages.

Keep a food diary of everything you eat for two weeks, then analyze your diet for ways to cut unnecessary calories. For example, you can switch to non-caloric beverages, put mustard on your sandwich instead of mayo, eat smaller portions of high fat foods, and reduce alcohol intake. Aside from cutting calories, you can make some smart substitutions to improve your numbers. Cutting down on saturated fats found in beef, butter and dairy can help.

Reducing carbohydrate intake is another way to lower triglycerides. Remember that excess energy from carbs is stored as fat in your cells. Make whole grains your primary sources of carbs and eat more vegetables, fruit and lean protein. Speaking of protein, some sources are more beneficial than others if you are concerned about triglycerides. Fish containing omega-3 fatty acids are so beneficial that they can improve your cholesterol, while replacing saturated fat in your diet. Try salmon, tuna, lake trout, sardines, herring and mackerel.

Even if you do not need to drastically reduce your weight, 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five times per week will improve health. You'll burn calories and use up energy stored as fat. All these changes are possible for anyone who wants to have better numbers by their next doctor's visit. Take it one day at a time and lean on friends and family for support of your new healthy lifestyle. A healthy heart will be your reward.

Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Institute For Healthy Aging

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