Triglycerides are the good, the bad and the ugly. How you ask? Well, we can’t live without them, but too much and they can kill you.

Triglycerides are naturally occurring fats (lipids) and are the main part of fats and oils derived from plants. Most body fat is stored in the body in the form of triglycerides, accounting for nearly 95% of dietary fat. If you eat more calories than your body can use, the excess is converted to triglycerides and stored in fat tissue for later use as energy. In order for the body to use this stored form of energy, the pancreas must release a hormone to facilitate its release from storage. Triglyceride production is stimulated by certain hormones, one being insulin. A diet high in simple carbohydrates (read high glycemic index, processed foods, etc.) causes a spike in insulin which in turn causes more triglyceride production and fat storage. High triglyceride levels are frequently associated with a diet high in processed foods, which is not just fast food, but most every food product you buy at the grocery store that has been altered from its natural state to make it taste better, store longer, cook quicker, easier to use, etc. Elevated levels are also linked to obesity and untreated diabetes.

A good example of processed foods

Triglycerides are important for overall body functions, energy production and building blocks for cells. Triglycerides differ from cholesterol (a different type of fat circulating in your blood) in how it is used by the body. Cholesterol is important for the formation of many hormones. Both fats cannot dissolve in blood so they are carried by certain proteins in the blood (lipoproteins) to needed locations.

High triglyceride levels, which can be checked by a blood test, are linked with a greatly increased risk for cardiovascular disease. It is believed that this excess fat in the blood leads to fatty deposits along blood vessels causing the lumens to narrow and the artery walls to thicken and become less elastic which causes high blood pressure. The artery lumens (atherosclerosis) can become so narrow that blood flow is restricted or cut off, and if these blood vessels are in the heart, it can cause a heart attack. High triglyceride levels can also cause the pancreas to become inflamed, possibly due to overstimulation of hormone production.

Everyone starting at age 20 (earlier if overweight) should have a lipid profile done to check your level of triglycerides and cholesterol. If triglycerides and cholesterol are elevated, food choices and lifestyle changes need to be instituted. A triglyceride level over 150 is considered high (seen in more than 30% of the US adult population). Other health issues should be screened for and treated along with triglyceride lowering.

While medications are available to lower these levels, many can have significant side effects. Therefore, lifestyle and diet changes are tried first. Weight loss, decreasing the amount of simple sugars consumed, removing processed foods from your dietary intake, adding more fiber from whole foods, vegetables and grains, along with significant increase in omega 3 fatty acid foods can have a big effect on lowering triglyceride levels.