Yes, cholesterol is important, but there’s another fat- -triglycerides –you need to keep tabs on. Here’s how to get it under control.
Source: Arthur Agatston, MD as published in Prevention Magazine. He is a preventive cardiologist and Prevention’s “From the Heart Doc.” He is also a member of Prevention’s medical advisory board.
As you’ve reviewed your blood test results, you may have noticed a number creeping up the past few years even if your cholesterol has been going down: your triglyceride level. Chances are, though, you haven’t paid much attention to it because your doctor doesn’t seem concerned (one-third of physicians fail to test 87% of patients). Result: You may be harboring a hidden risk factor for heart disease.
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. Any calories that aren’t immediately burned after eating–whether from fats, proteins, or carbohydrates–are converted into this fat and stored as an energy reserve.
Triglycerides can be an independent and compounding cause of heart disease. They circulate in the blood and can stick to artery walls and contribute to plaque. In other words, even if your cholesterol numbers are normal, you may still be in danger of developing cardiovascular disease if your triglycerides are high. What’s more, statin drugs aren’t very effective at lowering them.
The heartening news–triglycerides are relatively easy to control, even without drugs. Just follow this plan:
Know–and understand–your numbers.
Ask your doctor about the significance of your triglyceride count. Women are particularly vulnerable: With every incremental increase in triglycerides beyond a safe range (less than 150 mg/dL), their risk of developing heart disease increases nearly 3 times faster than that of men with similar blood profiles. That risk rises even more if you have low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.
Get a non-fasting blood test.
Most blood samples are drawn after an 8- to 12-hour fast. But because triglycerides are so sensitive to what we ingest, waiting that long allows levels to drop into the normal range. I prefer to test patients’ blood when they haven’t made any dietary changes. This provides a more accurate risk profile for triglycerides. (Cholesterol readings from both tests are equally accurate.)
Fight back with diet and exercise first.
I call triglycerides and HDL cholesterol the “lifestyle lipids” because they are so responsive to everyday health habits. I’ve seen patients’ triglyceride levels fall from 400 to less than 100 mg/dL (my goal for all my patients), and their HDL levels rise significantly, simply by eating fewer starchy and sugary carbohydrates, avoiding saturated and trans fats, exercising more often (and intensely), and losing weight.
If you’re prone to high triglycerides, that’s a sign your body isn’t very efficient at clearing fat from your blood. So limit high-fat meals, and don’t drink too much alcohol, which slows down fat metabolism.
Try these secret weapons.
Omega-3 fatty acids–found in salmon and sardines or a fish-oil supplement–are natural and effective triglyceride fighters. Cinnamon is, too; sprinkle it on appropriate foods. If all else fails, a class of drugs called fibrates, as well as prescription niacin, can bring triglycerides down.
About the author: Agatston, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, is the author of The South Beach Diet Supercharged: Faster Weight Loss and Better Health for Life. He maintains a cardiology practice and research foundation in Miami Beach, FL.
Read Agatston’s blog for the latest advice and ask him questions at Prevention.com/DrAgatston
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