High Triglycerides Versus Bad Cholesterol: What You Need to Know
Cholesterol levels have long been the focus of heart health, but high triglycerides affect about one-third of Americans. Find out if you're at risk.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Although you may know what your total cholesterol level is and be aware of the difference between bad cholesterol and good cholesterol, you may not know that your triglyceride level is an equally important part of your blood lipids profile. In fact, high triglycerides are as dangerous as bad cholesterol when it comes to your risk for heart disease.
According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high triglycerides could be a problem for one-third of all Americans. A recent article published in theArchives of Internal Medicinerevealed that one-third of adults in the United States have borderline high triglyceride levels, and one in five have high triglyceride levels. Though high triglyceride levels have increased dramatically over the past 30 years, only 1.3 percent of people with high triglycerides are taking medication approved to lower triglyceride levels. These findings suggest that triglyceride levels need to get more attention.
"The days when you only needed to know your total cholesterol level are gone," says Danya L. Dinwoodey, MD, a cardiologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. "Think of your triglyceride level as one part of the total fats in your blood. To get the whole picture, you need to break down the total fats into good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, and triglycerides."
High Triglycerides and Cholesterol Levels
Triglycerides are the form in which most fats exist in the body, including in your blood. When you eat more fatty calories than you use, the fat — or lipid — levels in your blood go up. Your body also makes triglycerides from the carbohydrates you eat and may send triglycerides to fat cells where they are stored for energy. Optimally, your triglyceride level should be less than 150 mg/dL; borderline levels are up to 199 mg/dL, over 200 mg/dL is considered high, and over 500 mg/dL is very high.
Unlike triglycerides, not all cholesterol contributes to heart disease. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol keeps cholesterol from building up inside your blood vessels and returns it to your liver. That’s why this kind of cholesterol is called the "good cholesterol." Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the type of cholesterol that forms plaques inside blood vessels and is considered "bad cholesterol."
"High triglyceride levels often go along with low HDL levels. This kind of blood lipid profile may be more likely to run in families and contributes to heart attacks and to strokes," says Dr. Dinwoodey.
Related: Are Heart Attacks 'All in the Family?'
You ideally want your total cholesterol to be below 200 mg/dL, but you also need to know the breakdown of your cholesterol levels:
- Your LDL cholesterol level should be between 70 and 130 mg/dL, with lower being better.
- Your HDL cholesterol level should be between 40 and 60 mg/dL, with higher being better.
Getting Control of High Triglycerides
The CDC researchers found that people with high triglyceride levels tended to be older and overweight, smoked more, and got less than 150 minutes of exercise per week. According to the American Heart Association, healthy lifestyle changes to counter those bad habits are the most important steps you can make to control high triglycerides, even more important than medication.
These choices include:
"Lifestyle modification is the best way to lower your bad cholesterol, increase your good cholesterol, and lower your triglyceride level," says Dinwoodey. It's not just about total cholesterol levels anymore. You need to know all your numbers and take the necessary actions to bring them in line.
Video: Understanding Triglycerides And Its Level - Manipal Hospital
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