A healthier heart and a healthier you begin with making lifestyle changes to lower triglycerides.
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Triglycerides are a type of fat that makes up most of your body fat stores. They can also be found in various foods, such as butter, margarine and oils. Beyond consumption of triglycerides, what and how much you eat also affects your blood triglyceride levels. When you eat more calories than you need, whether from carbohydrates, protein or fat, your body stores the excess calories as fat in the form of triglycerides.

Hypertriglyceridemia is a condition where elevated levels of triglycerides are present in the blood. It is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. Luckily, making changes to your diet and lifestyle can help lower your triglycerides and improve your health outcomes. Here are six mistakes that you may be making when trying to lower your triglycerides.

A young female adult lounges on a couch while wearing cozy clothing with blood cells in the background
Credit: Getty Images / Alex Ratson / Science Photo Library - SCIEPRO

1. You are cutting out all carbs

One common step that's taken to bring down your triglycerides is to reduce your calorie intake by cutting back on carbohydrates, such as simple carbs found in sodas, juices and sweetened beverages, and refined carbs, which are found in white bread, white pasta and snack products.

This can be a helpful approach: eating too many carbs could contribute to higher triglyceride levels, and cutting back would be one strategy to lower them. However, it is not necessary (or healthy) to cut out all forms of carbs, including those found in whole grains. Whole grains are full of types of fiber and nutrients that work together to benefit your health. Soluble fiber is a type of dietary fiber present in whole grains, vegetables and fruits that slows digestion by attracting water and forming a gel. This process delays the absorption of sugars and fat, softens your stools and promotes regular bowel movements. Together with insoluble fiber, a type of dietary fiber that adds bulk to stools, it can promote fullness and keep you feeling full for longer. In other words, including whole grains as part of your meals and snacks can help regulate your food portion sizes by minimizing your chance of overeating.

You can incorporate more whole grains by having at least half of your grains as whole grains. Try whole-wheat versions of your favorite pastas and other grain products, and make room for whole grains like oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and barley in your eating pattern.

2. You are not balancing your blood sugars

Eating too much food with added sugars can also lead to elevated triglyceride levels. Surprisingly or not, added sugars make up more than 13% of an average American's daily caloric intake, well above the Dietary Guidelines recommendation of less than 10% of total calories per day.

Added sugars can be present in prepackaged foods, in foods prepared away from home, as add-ins to your coffee and tea (such as sweetened creamers and table sugar) or as ingredients in your baked goods (such as sugar or molasses).

When you eat sugar, your liver breaks down its carbohydrates into glucose and transforms them into glycogen that is stored to use as energy later. The liver can only convert a limited amount of glucose into glycogen at one time; any excess will be stored as fatty acids. These fatty acids are then used to make triglycerides, which are stored in the fat cells and contribute to body fat.

Under normal conditions, your pancreas also makes the hormone insulin to respond to the influx of glucose present in the bloodstream. Insulin, which acts as a key to the body's cells, aids glucose to pass into the cells for energy. When the key and the lock (the receptors on cells) do not fit well, glucose may not move into cells efficiently or at all, causing the pancreas to make more insulin. Eventually, the pancreas may become sluggish in producing insulin, which can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes over time.

All that is to say that keeping your blood sugar levels in a normal range is important for total body health, including heart health. Reducing your intake of added sugars, along with choosing your carbs wisely, may help manage your blood sugar levels and keep your triglyceride levels in a healthier range.

3. You are eating the wrong kind of fat

The low-fat diet trend of the '90s has been replaced with just the opposite. Diets like keto and Whole30 encourage eating a lot of animal protein as well as full-fat versions of food, which might have many consumers eating more saturated fat. Overeating saturated fat is also associated with elevated triglyceride levels.

If you're trying to lower your triglycerides, it's best to ensure that saturated fats make up no more than 10% of your daily calories, replacing them with unsaturated fats, such as nuts and seeds, and omega-3 fats like those found in fatty fish and flax seeds.

You can also lower your saturated fat intake by choosing leaner cuts of meats and preparing your food with oils high in unsaturated fats, such as avocado oil and olive oil, instead of butter. Also try to have smaller servings of desserts and sweets, but really enjoy each bite so you feel more satisfied. Lastly, Nutrition Facts labels are a good place to check the saturated fat content of your packaged foods.

4. You are drinking too much alcohol

While some research studies suggest that drinking alcohol, specifically red wine, may provide some health benefits, drinking alcohol excessively causes more harm than good. Alcohol has calories, and adding sweetened beverages and mixers to alcohol, like cola or syrup, can increase the calories even more. Alcohol is processed in the liver and, as with food, any excess calories consumed are stored as fat. Over time, these extra calories can also raise your triglyceride levels. Drinking too much can also put you at risk for unnecessary weight gain, heart and liver diseases, and more.

Given that the risks outweigh the benefits, there's no need to start drinking if you don't already. If you do drink, enjoy it in moderation, with no more than two standard drinks per day for men and one standard drink per day for women.

5. You are not moving enough

Engaging in regular physical activity promotes a healthier heart and reduces your triglyceride levels by making your body burn calories. Specifically, aerobic exercise (aka cardio) makes your heart rate and breathing go up, which can help keep your lungs and circulation functioning at its best. Activities that involve cardio include brisk walking, swimming, cycling, running and more.

Being active for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity every week is key to maintaining good health. You can also combine the two types of intensities throughout the week.

Look for small wins when you first start exercising, such as doing a 10-minute workout at home, taking your dog or family members out for your walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking your car farther away in the parking lot.

6. You have not quit smoking

If you are a smoker who has been doing all of the above, yet you are struggling with bringing down your triglyceride levels, there could be one thing getting in your way: cigarettes. Smoking is a risk factor for heart disease by promoting plaque formation in the arteries. Plaque is a fatty substance made up of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides that can stick to the arterial walls and reduce blood flow over time.

Using alternatives, such as e-cigarettes and vaping, is not any better either. Research has found that smoking e-cigarettes could be just as damaging to one's cholesterol, glucose and triglyceride levels as smoking traditional tobacco products.

It is never too late to quit smoking to bring down your triglycerides to a healthy range. That said, it is easier said than done. If you need help quitting, reach out to your doctor or local health department for more information on tobacco cessation programs.