DEAR DR. BLONZ: My husband was just in for his annual physical, and his blood test showed high triglycerides. A similar result was found last year. He had some stents put in a few years ago and is on heart medication, but ever since then, he has toed the health line: He watches what he eats, exercises every other day and is not overweight.
His doctor said that the only thing one can do for high triglycerides is to exercise and lose any excess weight. Since my husband is already doing that, do you know of any dietary supplement that might help? -- T.S., Vacaville, California
DEAR T.S.: Fats represent the most concentrated form of stored energy in plants and animals, and triglycerides are the form by which nature bundles fats together. It includes the fats in our diet (nuts, seeds, butter, cooking oils, etc.), most of that found in our bloodstream, and the fat that eventually makes its way into our energy storage area, the adipose tissue.
Think of a triglyceride like the letter "E," with the three prongs representing the individual saturated or unsaturated fatty acids.
We need energy throughout the day, but the only time we take in energy is when we eat. At mealtime, food gets digested and absorbed, and any protein, carbohydrate or fat not being immediately used ends up as triglycerides and is transported off to storage through the blood. This explains why blood triglycerides go up after we eat, even when there is a limited amount of fat in the meal. It also explains why triglyceride tests are usually given after a 12- to 14-hour fast to avoid interference from the previous meal.
Triglycerides are recognized as an independent risk factor for heart disease. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense: It is not in our best interests to have a lot of fat roaming around in our bloodstream. Fat can fall victim to free-radical oxidation, a process that can damage your blood vessels, cause blockages and push you down the road toward heart disease. A high triglyceride level is even more of a risk factor when your blood cholesterol level is also elevated.
I wish there was a dietary supplement I could recommend with confidence, but there is no clear or consistent evidence. Your doctor is correct in that exercise and weight control are key, as high triglycerides are more common in people who carry excess weight. A regular intake of fish, especially those rich in omega-3 fats, can be helpful, but the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements is less clear: Recent research has reported increases in LDL cholesterol after taking them, which is not the type you want to see rise.
As a general rule, limiting alcohol intake and avoiding simple sugars makes sense, especially on an empty stomach, as they are known to contribute to elevated triglyceride levels.
The National Institutes of Health has a good article on triglycerides (tinyurl.com/p5ww2pd). Have your husband read it and have a discussion with his physician. This is especially important because he has had heart issues in the past, and is on medication. There can be a genetic component to elevated blood triglycerides and cholesterol; is there a family history of this problem? Again, it's something to talk about with his physician.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.