For ages, watching out for your heart meant monitoring cholesterol levels. Just when we get our heads around what cholesterol is and which type is allegedly good (HDL) and which is bad (LDL), there’s a new heart health buzzword: triglycerides. Triglycerides, like cholesterol, are water-soluble blood lipids. Simply: they’re a fat. When it comes to heart health, which is more important to watch, cholesterol or triglycerides?
“It’s complex,” says NYU cardiologist Dr. Herbert A. Insel, a member of the preventative health care institute EHE International’s medical advisory board. “We do look at triglyceride levels, they count, but when it comes to heart disease, cholesterol levels are the best indicator. LDL cholesterol is the major culprit. This is when plaque ruptures occur and cardiac arrest ensues.”
Like cholesterol, triglycerides have an important function: They’re used for energy. But too many triglycerides become the substance that sits on your hips. Hyperlipidemia refers to both too many triglycerides and/or too much cholesterol in the blood. Unchecked, hyperlipidemia leads to clogged blood vessels.
The direct relationship between triglycerides and cardiovascular problems is unclear, but diet and weight management are proven factors in preventing heart disease.
“High triglyceride levels may affect high levels of bad cholesterol, we don’t know,” says Dr. Insel. “We do know that the Mediterranean diet has been proven to be good for your heart. We don’t recommend a low-fat diet anymore, but we recommend healthy fats and no trans fats.”
Triglycerides are measured in the same way as cholesterol. A blood test determines levels and both can be checked at the same time. But numbers shouldn’t be your main focus — warding off the illness should be.
“Take responsibility in preventing heart disease,” Dr. Insel says. “Eat a healthy diet and exercise routinely.”
Besides excessive calories, causes of high triglyceride levels are still being researched. Certain medications can raise triglycerides and hereditary predisposition is a possible factor. The most common and controllable element is what you put into your body: “Drinking a lot of alcohol promotes triglycerides,” says Dr. Insel. “Being overweight is directly linked. Watch your sugar intake and eat whole grains.”