Triglycerides

Triglycerides are fats in the blood that are used to provide energy for the body. High triglyceride levels (above 1.7mmol/L) increase your risk of heart disease. Healthy lifestyle measures can help lower triglyceride levels.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are an important form of energy for your body. When you eat, extra energy from food and alcohol that your body does not need right away is changed to triglycerides. These triglycerides are stored in fat cells around your body, commonly on your hips and belly. If you need energy between meals, triglycerides are released into the blood stream.

If you regularly consume more energy than you need, you can get high triglyceride levels.

What are high triglyceride levels?

Your triglyceride levels are measured as part of a cholesterol test

 Classification Level
Normal below 1.7mmol/L
High between 1.7mmol/L and 5mmol/L
Very high above 5mmol/L
Extremely high above 10mmol/L

Your doctor will discuss your results with you.

Why are high triglyceride levels a problem?

High triglyceride levels are of concern as they increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Very high triglycerides can cause an inflamed pancreas (called pancreatitis), which can be very serious and even life threatening.

What causes high triglyceride levels?

  • Being overweight.
  • Lack of physical activity.
  • Excessive alcohol use – alcohol is high in calories and sugar. Even small amounts of alcohol can raise triglyceride levels.
  • A very high carbohydrate diet. 
  • Certain diseases and medicines.
  • People with very high triglycerides (above 5mmol/L) often have a genetic disorder which prevents them from moving triglycerides out of their blood.
  • Smoking – increases your risk of heart disease and stroke by increasing clotting factors in the blood, decreasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels, increasing triglyceride levels, and damaging the lining of blood vessels.

How can I lower my triglyceride level?

You may be able to lower your triglycerides with a combination of losing weight, diet and exercise.

  • Avoid simple carbohydrates, such as foods containing sugar or made with white flour. Eat more whole-grains, such as oats, brown rice and multi-grain bread.
  • Reduce alcohol intake – drink less than the recommended amount of alcohol per week. These guidelines are usually too high for people with high triglycerides. If you have triglyceride levels over 5mmol/L you should avoid alcohol completely.
  • Eat less fat and choose healthy fats
    • cut back on saturated fat (in red meat and full-fat dairy foods) and trans fats (in restaurant fried foods and commercially prepared baked goods)
    • eat more fish – omega-3 fats in salmon, tuna, sardines, and other fatty fish can lower triglycerides. Having fish twice a week is fine.
  • If you are overweight, losing weight, even just 5% to 10%, will help lower your triglyceride level.
  • Stop smoking. It isn’t good for triglyceride levels – or for anything else.
  • Ideally, you should exercise for at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most or all days of the week. Exercise lowers triglycerides and boosts heart-healthy HDL cholesterol.

See our Healthy Living section for more ideas to help you get started. 

You also may need to take medication to lower your triglycerides. Your doctor may start you on a statin, or a fibrate (such as bezafibrate or gemfibrozil). Your doctor will let you know if you need to take medication. 

What is the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol?

Triglycerides and cholesterol are both fats that circulate in your blood. They both have essential roles in your body:

  • Triglycerides store unused calories and provide your body with energy.
  • Cholesterol is used to build cells and certain hormones.

Too much of either can increase your risk of heart disease. A blood test measures your triglycerides along with your cholesterol. Read more about cholesterol.

Learn more

High cholesterol NZ Heart Foundation
Triglycerides: why do they matter? Mayo Clinic, US
Triglycerides and how to lower them WebMD, US