DEAR DR. BLONZ: At last year's annual physical, I learned that my triglycerides were over 400. Over the past year, I have been losing weight, and I also started medication for high blood pressure and high triglycerides. My levels are on the way down, but can you tell me exactly what triglycerides do in the body? -- T.L., Teaneck, New Jersey
DEAR T.L.: The role of triglycerides often confuses people. That's not surprising, given the speed with which many complex health terms have encroached upon our daily lives. The triglyceride can be thought of as the body's most concentrated package of stored energy. It is composed of three fatty acids attached to a 3-carbon (glycerol) structure, and can be a fat or an oil.
Fats and oils are usually differentiated by their states at 68 to 72 degrees F, the range referred to as "room temperature." Fats, such as butter or lard, will be solid at room temperature, while oils, such as olive, corn or canola oils, are liquid. (This definition has some wiggle room: Coconut oil, while solid at room temperature, has managed to cling to its "oil" name.) That being said, the term "fat" is generally used to refer to both the fats and oils in the foods we eat.
Triglycerides include the fats in our food, those traveling in our bloodstreams and those hanging around in the body's excess energy storage areas -- and we all know what that means.
We take in energy when we eat, after which our blood triglyceride level rises -- even if there's a limited amount of fat in the meal. This is because the body is programmed to avoid any waste of calories (energy), even if in the form of protein or carbohydrate. Excess energy will be converted into fatty acids by the liver, and then be packed into triglycerides and released into the bloodstream on its way to storage. Food fats are already in the form of triglycerides, but during digestion they are disassembled, only to be put back together after absorption. A high intake of alcohol or of sugars such as fructose, sucrose or glucose tends to increase the blood triglyceride level.
To get an accurate read on one's baseline triglyceride level, tests are usually given after a 12- to 14-hour fast. There can be lab-to-lab differences on what comprises a normal range for blood triglycerides, but generally speaking, levels above 200 milligrams per deciliter are considered high. You can read more about this at tinyurl.com/zps6kf5.
High triglycerides are now recognized as a risk factor for heart disease, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Simply put, it is not in our best interest to have higher-than-normal levels of fats roaming around our bloodstreams. A high triglyceride level may be more of a risk factor if accompanied by an elevated blood cholesterol level.
Finally, let me offer my congratulations on your strides toward health. High triglycerides are more common in people who carry excess weight, so I wish you success in your continued efforts.
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.