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What are triglycerides?

What are triglycerides?
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You’ve probably heard about triglycerides (TG) during a routine physical or after a cholesterol test. But what are they and why should you pay attention to them? Dr Michael Miller, a professor of cardiovascular medicine and the author of Heal Your Heart, explains that triglyceride levels indicate the amount of fat in your bloodstream. “The average level for adult men and women after an overnight fast is 125, with optimal levels below 100,” he says. “The borderline-high range is 150 to 199, and high levels are 200 and above.” If your levels are creeping upwards, says Dr Miller, your risk of heart disease and death from cardiovascular disease will also rise. Higher levels, especially when you have low HDL ( ‘good’ cholesterol) or high LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol), are linked with hardening of the arteries.

Conditions that raise triglycerides

Conditions that raise triglycerides
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Certain health conditions can cause high triglycerides, so let your doctor know your medical history or any unusual symptoms you may have. This could shed some light on your levels, says Dr Joel Kahn, a clinical professor of medicine. For example, he says conditions such as prediabetes, diabetes, liver disease and thyroid disease could be responsible for high triglycerides. But lifestyle factors have a huge impact on your triglycerides as well, so before your doctor prescribes medication, you may want to try to lower them naturally. Here’s how to do it.

Cut refined carbs

Cut refined carbs
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Overeating is one of the most common causes of high triglycerides. Dr Miller stresses the importance of making healthier food choices and limiting simple carbs like those found in white bread, pasta, cakes, cookies and many snacks. “Since excess sugar is converted into triglycerides in the bloodstream, eating foods high in refined carbs can cause a spike in TG levels,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, a dietitian and certified diabetes educator and the author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet.

Get moving

Get moving
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One of the best answers to the question of how to lower triglycerides is to burn more kilojoules through exercise. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) notes that moderately intense activity is associated with a 20% lower triglyceride level when compared to no activity. In addition, “exercise helps to increase the good HDL cholesterol, which helps to reduce triglyceride levels,” Palinski-Wade says. In a study in the journal Sports Medicine, aerobic exercise was shown to have the greatest impact on lowering triglyceride levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should strive for 150 minutes of physical activity every week.

Don’t know where to start? Here are 10 beginner-friendly exercises you can do at home.

Limit your alcohol intake

Limit your alcohol intake
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While you may want to sip on a glass of wine after a long day, go easy: drinking too much alcohol is one of the unhealthy habits that are worse for you than you thought. Alcohol can raise your triglyceride levels while also contributing to high blood pressure, obesity and increased type 2 diabetes risk, according to the AHA. “Alcohol is a source of empty kilojoules and sugar. When this excess energy goes unused, it can begin to collect and build up as triglycerides in the blood,” explains Palinski-Wade. “Some suggests moderate alcohol intake can raise TG levels by 50% or more.”

According to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, healthy men and women should drink no more than ten standard drinks a week and no more than four on any one day. A standard drink equals ten grams of alcohol, regardless of glass size or alcohol type, and is most likely a whole lot less than what you think it is. For example, a standard glass of white wine (11.5% alc/vol) is 110mL – that’s about one third of most (300mL) wine glasses. A full-strength beer or regular cider (4.9% alc/vol) is 260mL. Cans are usually 375mL, and equal to 1.4 standard drinks.

“But if you are looking to lower TG levels, refraining from alcohol may be your best option,” Palinski-Wade says.

Eat – and drink – less added sugar

Eat – and drink – less added sugar
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If you notice you’re reaching for chocolate bars and bottles of soft drink, you may need to crack your sugar addiction. Getting hopped up on the sweet stuff doesn’t do your triglycerides any favours. “Any added sugar can cause a spike in TG levels, from both food and drink,” Palinski-Wade says. “Aim to limit your intake of added sugar to no more than 10% of total kilojoules to help prevent triglyceride levels from rising.” Look out for added sugar in soft drinks, breakfast cereals and yoghurt – and keep an eye out for sneaky sugars that end in ‘ose’, such as sucrose, fructose, lactose and dextrose.

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Consume more fibre

Consume more fibre
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A low-carb diet has been shown to lower triglyceride levels. But you don’t need to cut out carbs completely if you choose whole grains and fruit packed with nutrients and fibre. “High-fibre, complex carbohydrates should still be part of your meal plan, since eating a diet rich in fibre can help to reduce the absorption of both sugar and fat in the small intestine,” Palinski-Wade says. Vegetables such as broccoli, potatoes and carrots are good sources of fibre as well.

The gut plays a major role in our wellbeing. Here CSIRO scientists explain just how important it is

Avoid unhealthy fats

Avoid unhealthy fats
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In addition to sugar, another main triglyceride culprit is unhealthy fat. “Trans fats, which can often be found in processed and fried food, can raise TG levels and increase the risk for heart disease, so these should be limited as much as possible,” Palinski-Wade says. Dr Miller also recommends eating less saturated fat, found in meat and dairy, and avoiding processed foods with partially hydrogenated oils, which also contain trans fats.

Instead, eat healthy fats

Instead, eat healthy fats
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Not all fats are created equal when it comes to triglycerides. Certain ‘healthy’ fats actually make the body work better, so you do want to include them in your diet. “Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat has been shown to help reduce TG levels,” Palinski-Wade says, adding that the connection is quite direct: research has shown that every percent you decrease your intake of trans fats – replacing them with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat – lowers your triglyceride levels by the same amount. Eating avocados and cooking with olive oil instead of butter are great ways to add these healthy fats to your diet.

Confused about which oil you should be cooking with? Here we explain the good, the bad and the ugly of cooking oils.

Load up on omega-3s

Load up on omega-3s
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Replacing beef with a salmon steak can also help lower triglycerides because salmon contains another beneficial fat. “Omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fat found in foods such as fatty fish, have been associated with a reduction in TG levels,” Palinski-Wade says. “Since fatty fish provide a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, eating them twice per week has been in a consortium of 19 studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine to reduce TG levels.”

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