Keeping a low (lipid) profile
It’s still heart awareness month, so I thought I’d dedicate this posting to triglycerides… those little-known blood lipids that constantly get overshadowed by publicity-hungry cholesterol, both “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL).
After a routine blood test, a friend of mine was told by his doctor that his triglycerides were a little bit elevated. When my friend asked his doctor what he should do, the doctor replied: “diet and exercise.”
Gee. That was so helpful.
For one, my friend didn’t even know what triglycerides were, why they needed to be lower, and what he could do about it. So if you or anyone you know has had a similar experience, read on. You’ll be happy to know that there are some pretty specific things you can do to help improve your blood triglycerides (TGs) without prescription drugs.
What are triglycerides (TGs)?
Triglycerides are the most common form of dietary fat, and they’re the form in which most of your body fat is stored. High levels of triglycerides in your blood are an independent risk factor for heart disease. In other words: even if your cholesterol levels are normal, having high triglycerides still increases your risk for heart disease. A healthy level would be <150mg/dL. Levels up to 199mg/dL are considered borderline high. Anything above that is high, and really needs to be addressed. In a minority of cases, high triglycerides can be caused by genetic factors or as a side effect to certain medications. Sometimes elevated triglycerides that don’t respond to lifestyle changes can be a sign of undiagnosed diabetes. But for most people–especially most otherwise healthy people– high triglycerides can be caused by various dietary and lifestyle habits.
Even though triglycerides comprise most of your dietary fat, having high blood triglyceride levels is not neccesarily caused by high intakes of dietary fat.
In fact, high TG’s are associated more with diets that are very high in carbohydrates–particularly sugar and refined grains. This is because eating lots of sugar–or other simple carbohydrates and starches that get broken down into sugar quickly– creates more energy than your body can use at one time. The excess sugar is converted into triglycerides–the storage form of fat–by your liver. If you’ve ever wondered why so many of us have such a hard time with weight in a country whose supermarkets are filled with low-fat products, this should offer a clue. Low-fat products tend to replace the missing fat with refined carbohydrate…which, in turn, gets converted into fat once you eat it, anyway. (Those Snackwells cookies we all used to gorge on in the 90’s weren’t such a great nutritional bargain, after all, huh?)
Another key dietary factor associated with high triglyceride levels is alcohol consumption. Alcohol disrupts your liver’s normal metabolism of energy, making it more prone to convert carbohydrate into fat AND less able to break down stored fat into energy. Both of these factors will contribute to higher levels of triglycerides in your blood.
How to lower your blood triglyceride levels
Losing weight (if you are overweight), quitting smoking and increasing the amount of exercise you get will all help lower your triglyceride levels. People who carry their extra pounds in their midsection are especially prone to having high triglycerides, and this needs to be addressed through weight loss. In addition, there are some changes you can make in your diet that should make a significant impact.
Make changes in the type of carbohydrates you eat. Note that this does NOT mean to go on a low-carb diet. But if over 60% of your calories are from carbohydrate (usually as the result of a very very low fat diet), or if your diet features regular consumption of things like: bread, bagels, baked goods like muffins/cookies/cakes/donuts, cereals made from refined grains instead of whole grains (e.g, corn flakes, rice krispies), cereals with lots of added sugar, pretzels/chips, non-diet soda, energy drinks, candy or chocolate, then you may need a bit of a carbohydrate makeover. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Include whole grains in your breakfast. Look for breakfast cereals that use whole grains, have at least 3g of fiber per serving and less than 10g sugar per serving. Oatmeal is also good option, and now that Starbuck’s is selling it, it’s even more convenient to eat on workdays. If your morning bagel is a non-negotiable ritual, try to only have half; replace the other half with a piece of fresh fruit or a hard-boiled egg… or treat yourself to that bagel once per week instead of every day. Contrary to the name and the ‘healthy-looking’ brown color, a bran muffin is NOT a healthy, whole grain option for breakfast, especially with the sizes they come in these days.
- Eat your sandwich open-faced. And choose whole-wheat bread instead of white bread whenever possible.
- If you choose to snack on packaged foods, never snack directly out of the container. That goes for ice cream, chips, pretzels and cookies. Read the label to know what a serving size is. How many servings you can afford to eat based on your calorie budget and level of physical activity. Measure out those portions and put the container away. You will ALWAYS eat more when you eat straight from the bag (or pint, as the case may be).
- Popcorn is a better choice than pretzels when it comes to snacking. An apple with peanut butter, a hard boiled egg, a handful of nuts or a piece of string cheese and some whole grain crackers or crispbread are all better choices than an “energy bar,” many of which are basically candy bars fortified with a ridiculous amount of protein.
Lay off the sauce. Those couple of beers after work on most weeknights add up. So does that standing appointment for your weekend ‘girl’s night out’ where “I’ll just have one” turns into “I’ll just have four.” Alcohol has a major impact on your triglyceride levels–more so than sugar, even. Cutting back on alcohol if your triglycerides are borderline high–or eliminating it if they’re already high– should make a quick and measurable difference. Your triglyceride levels are just one health-related reason to keep the alcohol intake in check, but a good one at that.
Talk to your doctor about whether it might help to start taking Fish Oil supplements. Research shows that therapeutic doses (beyond the daily recommended intake for general health maintenance) of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can reduce triglyceride levels by anywhere from 15%-40%. If this approach interests you, it’s important to approach a regimen like this under a doctor’s supervision. That’s because fish oil has a blood thinning effect. If you drink, take certain types of herbal supplements, take certain medications (even over-the-counter ones like aspirin!), or have any sort of bleeding/clotting disorders, there could be a risk of dangerous side effects like excess bleeding or stroke. Your doctor will need to review your medical history and other important factors and tell you if a therapeutic dose of fish oil will be safe for you, and if so, what dose to try.
Isn’t heart awareness month fun? Now what are you waiting for? Get on out there and get your blood lipids tested! By the time your results are back, I’ll have posted more exciting ways for you to celebrate this joyous month. Here’s to your heart!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.