What Are Triglycerides, and Why Do They Matter?

Apr 10, 2024
What Are Triglycerides, and Why Do They Matter?
Fats come in many forms, and you’re probably already familiar with saturated and trans fats and cholesterol, but what about triglycerides? Keep reading to learn what they are and why their levels matter, too.

To understand triglycerides, you need to understand the role of fat and cholesterol in your body.

Cholesterol is a type of waxy fat that helps build cell membranes, among other things. Manufactured in the liver, it travels through your bloodstream to every part of your body. Your liver produces as much as you need. However, cholesterol is found in animal-derived foods such as meat and eggs, so it’s quite easy to elevate your levels beyond what’s healthy.

Primary care and family physicians like Dr. Richard Pedroza at AGP Family Health Clinic offer chronic disease management, which includes helping you keep your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in a healthy range. Here, the doctor addresses the role of triglycerides in your body and explains why the levels of this type of fat are important.

The different types of cholesterol

Cholesterol moves through the body attached to one of three lipoproteins:

  1. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), called “the bad cholesterol”
  2. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), called “the good cholesterol”
  3. Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), which carry triglycerides

LDL is often called the “bad” cholesterol because when it binds to cholesterol, it leaves fatty plaques on the walls of your arteries, the vessels that transport blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your body. The plaques narrow the arteries’ width, making your heart work harder to pump the same amount of blood, raising your blood pressure and producing blockages that can trigger a heart attack or stroke.

As the plaque builds up, it hardens, making the artery walls stiff, and you develop atherosclerosis, commonly known as “hardening of the arteries.” Atherosclerosis is a major cause of circulatory system problems such as peripheral arterial disease (PAD), coronary artery disease (CAD), and carotid artery disease.

On the other hand, when HDL binds to cholesterol, it removes other forms of cholesterol, including LDL, from the bloodstream, which is why it’s termed a “good” molecule. It delivers the cholesterol to the liver, which eliminates it from the body. Current research suggests high HDL levels may reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

Introducing triglycerides

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. They’re found in foods like butter and oil, but they can also be formed from “extra” calories. If you eat more fat than your body needs at the moment for energy, it converts the fat into triglycerides, storing it inside fat cells for use at a later time when your blood levels are low. Very-low-density lipoproteins carry the triglycerides to your tissues.

A high triglyceride level, like LDL cholesterol, can raise your risk for a number of heart diseases, including carotid artery disease, PAD, and CAD. 

What causes high triglyceride levels?

Your triglyceride level may rise due to:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Drinking large quantities of alcohol
  • Taking certain medicines
  • Having some genetic disorders
  • Having thyroid disease
  • Having poorly controlled type 2 diabetes
  • Having liver or kidney disease

The main culprit, though, is routinely eating more calories than you can burn off, especially if the foods contain a lot of sugar.

Diagnosing and treating high triglycerides

There’s an easy way to determine your triglyceride — and cholesterol — level: a simple blood test. Levels are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). If your level is less than 150 mg/dL, your levels are normal. 150 to 199 mg/dL is considered moderately high; 200 to 499 mg/dL is high; and 500 mg/dL and above is very high.

Levels above 150 mg/dL can increase your risk for heart disease, as well as for metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

It’s possible to control your triglyceride levels with lifestyle changes such as:

  • Controlling your weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Not smoking
  • Limiting sugar and processed foods
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Switching from saturated fats to healthier fats

Some people, though, especially if their levels fall in the high and very high categories, also need to take cholesterol medications to lower their triglycerides.

Want to learn more about how you can control your triglycerides? AGP Family Clinic can help. To get started, call our Tomball, Texas, office at 832-861-0393, or book your appointment online with us today.