With so much focus on maintaining a healthy cholesterol level, it’s easy to forget about another fat that circulates in your blood, called triglycerides. Your body releases triglycerides into your bloodstream from fat stores when your muscles need more fuel. They serve a useful function, but high triglycerides are also a marker for a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
Blood triglycerides are so important that your physician checks your blood triglyceride level when you get a full lipid panel. However, many people don’t know their triglyceride level or whether it’s outside the normal range unless they see their doctor regularly and you can have a high triglyceride level without any symptoms.
According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, a normal blood triglyceride level is 150 mg/dl or less. A high triglyceride level is anything above 200 mg/dl, while anything between these two points is borderline high. A high triglyceride level is not only a risk factor for cardiovascular disease; it may also indicate insulin resistance if you have it in conjunction with high LDL-cholesterol, low HDL-cholesterol, a large waist size, or elevated blood pressure. In addition, very high blood triglycerides increase the risk of acute pancreatitis, a serious illness marked by inflammation of the pancreas.
Despite how important blood triglycerides are for health, many people aren’t aware that high triglycerides are linked with cardiovascular disease. Although there are medications that can lower elevated blood triglycerides, lifestyle and diet can bring them down too. One of the most important steps you can take to reduce high triglycerides is to lose weight. Shedding as little as 7% of your body weight can bring down an elevated triglyceride level. You might also wonder whether the type of diet you eat is a factor.
What’s the Best Diet for Blood Triglycerides?
Although there isn’t a “best” diet for elevated blood triglycerides, there are dietary factors that can help bring them down. One of the most important steps you can take is to remove ultra-processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugar from your diet or reduce them drastically. These foods are lower on the nutrient-density scale too.
Although studies are conflicting, some research suggests that consuming foods high in fructose, a type of sugar in processed foods, and some fruit, can raise blood triglycerides more than table sugar. Manufacturers sweeten many ultra-processed foods, including soft drinks, with high-fructose corn syrup, a more concentrated source of fructose. Even some natural sweeteners, like agave syrup, contain substantial quantities of fructose.
The Mediterranean Diet, Cardiovascular Disease, and Triglycerides
Many health experts recommend that people with elevated triglycerides follow a Mediterranean diet, and there’s science to support its benefits. A 2017 study found that adhering closely to a Mediterranean diet reduced blood triglycerides in older adults. Plus, other studies show the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. In fact, it’s considered one of the healthiest diets in the world with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish.
Mediterranean-style dining also deemphasizes red meat, refined carbohydrates, and ultra-processed foods. The favored form of fat in the Mediterranean diet is extra-virgin olive oil, rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and long-chain omega-3s, a type of fatty acid abundant in fatty fish such as sardines and wild-caught salmon.
Although a traditional Mediterranean diet often includes modest quantities of alcohol, usually red wine, too much alcohol can raise blood triglycerides. If you have elevated triglycerides, don’t consume more than one alcoholic drink per day, preferably choosing red wine. However, it’s best to eliminate alcohol entirely and see if it brings your triglycerides down.
Exercise Matters Too
Beyond diet, exercise is another lifestyle habit that can bring high triglycerides down. Beyond changing your diet and losing weight, exercise is the most effective lifestyle habit for lowering triglycerides. Plus, it helps with weight control. Exercising after a meal may offer even more triglyceride-lowering benefits. Studies show that engaging in even light exercise after a meal reduces triglycerides in the bloodstream by 72%. So, the last thing you want to do after eating a meal is to recline to an easy chair and watch television. Take a short walk instead but keep the intensity light to avoid indigestion.
Even if you don’t exercise after each meal, make sure you get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week to keep your blood triglycerides in a healthy range. Reducing your calorie intake, if you eat too much also helps bring blood triglycerides into a healthier range. The quality and quantity of what you eat both matter.
The Bottom Line
Now you know that a Mediterranean diet helps lower elevated blood triglycerides. Combine it with other healthy lifestyle habits like regular exercise and weight loss to reduce triglycerides and boost your heart health even more. It can take up to 6 weeks after changing your diet to see a change in your triglyceride readings. Be consistent and patient but stick with it. Remember, you’re doing it for your heart and your health.
Make sure you know what your triglyceride level is too. Doctors check it with a blood test at the same time they check your other lipids. If you’re not sure where you stand on the triglyceride scale, ask your physician. Even if it’s high, lifestyle can go a long way toward lowering it. If your triglycerides are way out of range and don’t respond to weight, diet, and exercise, your doctor may recommend a medication to bring them down.
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