What Are Triglycerides?

Technically speaking, triglycerides are compounds that contain three molecules of fatty acids (thus, the ‘tri’) and one molecule of glycerin.  I am sure that you are not really looking for that technical answer when asking ‘what are triglycerides?’

Triglycerides are a very common form of fat.  Not only do they make up 95% of the fat that we eat in our food, but they are the most common type of fat found in our bodies.  The food you eat supplies your body with some triglycerides but your body also manufacturers it using the liver.  Your body needs triglycerides for several functions, including the construction of fatty tissue and cholesterol as well as a source of energy.  However, too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

What Are Triglycerides?

What Are Triglycerides?

As mentioned above, your body uses triglycerides as energy.  Any food that you eat that is not needed by the body right away is converted into triglycerides and stored.  This stored energy is then used up when regular food is not available, whether that is between meals or when you are on a restricted diet.  There can then be a buildup of triglycerides if you regularly consume more calories than what your body needs.

Why are high triglyceride levels dangerous?

While there is no evidence to provide a direct link, it is suggested that a high level of triglycerides may indicate a higher risk of heart disease and ultimately a heart attack or stroke.  It is thought that triglycerides may interact with the walls of your arteries in a way that makes it easier for plaque to build up.  Also, cholesterol and triglycerides appear to be linked.  When there are high triglyceride levels that often means that there are also high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the ‘bad’ cholesterol.

Having high levels of triglycerides may also be an indication of metabolic syndrome.  This includes having low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the ‘good’ cholesterol), high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and excess fat around the waist.  Risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes increases when a person develops metabolic syndrome.

What are normal levels of triglycerides?

Okay, so high levels of triglycerides is an indication of higher risk for heart disease.  What defines a ‘high’ level?

Normal: Lower than 150 mg/dL

Borderline high: 150-199 mg/dL

High: 200-499 mg/dL

Extremely high: 500 mg/dL or higher

What can be done about high levels of triglycerides?

Since they are related to the foods that you eat, that is best way to get control.  However, there are other things you can do to help reduce the amount of triglycerides in your body:

  • If overweight, lose weight.
  • If at a healthy weight, maintain that weight and do not gain any pounds.
  • Increase the amount of polyunsaturated fats in your diet (yes, increase fats – but, only polyunsaturated fats).
  • Reduce other fats, specifically saturated fats, and sugars in your diet.
  • Get exercise.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. Moderate alcohol use is okay.
  • Consult with your doctor about controlling your triglyceride levels with medication.

Answering the question of ‘what are triglycerides’ is only the first step.  Once you learn how your body uses them and what may happen if you have too many your understanding will be much clearer.  If you have further questions or would like to get your triglyceride levels tested make sure you bring up your questions and thoughts with your doctor.


Heart Protection Study Collaborative Group

American Heart Association