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Triglycerides: A new watchword in heart health

Lots of people know their total cholesterol numbers offhand—212, 150, 316 (ouch!). By now, most of us are aware that even more crucial than the total figure may be the ratio of HDL (good) to LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. And lately, researchers have been telling us that yet another score—triglyceride levels—can shed light on how the heart is faring, serving as an important predictor of cardiovascular disease, particularly in women and people with diabetes.

A fat by any other name …

A type of fat, triglycerides are manufactured by the body and are also introduced into the body by the foods we eat. Triglycerides bind with proteins in the bloodstream to form LDL cholesterol, the type that sticks to artery walls. Recent studies suggest that high triglyceride levels, usually measured at the same time as blood cholesterol, virtually cancel out the protective effect of high HDL cholesterol levels.

Reliable readings, recommended levels

If you don’t recall your doctor’s having mentioned anything to you about your triglyceride score, it may be because he or she couldn’t be assured of its accuracy. It can take 10 or more hours for the fat from a single heavy meal to be cleared from the bloodstream, so unless you fasted before your blood test, it’s unlikely your triglyceride reading was reliable. The National Cholesterol Education Program considers triglyceride levels below 150 to be normal. Generally, the lower your level, the better.

Taking charge of triglycerides

To monitor your triglyceride levels, fast before your next blood test (schedule the test for first thing in the morning) to ensure an accurate reading. Discuss your triglyceride score with your doctor and ask how it fits into your overall cardiovascular risk profile. To bring high triglycerides down, achieve and maintain a healthy weight; limit saturated and trans fats, simple carbohydrates and alcohol; and stick to a regular program of physical activity. The good news is that those changes will help you manage other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.