How to Lower Your Triglycerides

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on March 16, 2024
9 min read

Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood. 

They come from foods you eat, like oils, butter, and animal fats. Your liver can also make triglycerides. It's triggered to do so when you eat more calories, especially from high-carbohydrate foods, than your body needs. Those excess calories are turned into triglycerides and stored in your fat tissue until your body needs them.

Experts once debated how important triglycerides are. It's now clear that like cholesterol, high levels can raise your risk of heart disease. But you and your doctor have ways to lower your triglycerides if they're running high.

Function of triglycerides

In normal amounts, triglycerides aren't "bad." In fact, they serve some crucial functions that you need to survive.

Triglycerides can be turned into fatty acids and used to:

  • Fuel your muscles
  • Create body heat
  • Provide energy for necessary body functions

Triglycerides are made of three fatty acids linked by glycerol, a simple sugar. A cold stick of butter is in triglyceride form. So is the layer of congealed fat you may see on top of cooled chicken soup.

When you eat foods like dairy products and meat that contain triglycerides, they get absorbed by your intestines. Then, a bundle of fat and protein called a lipoprotein is used to transport extra triglycerides through your bloodstream and into your fat tissue to be stored for later use.

After you eat a meal that's very high in fat, you might have so many triglycerides in your blood that it could be noticed by the human eye. A sample of your blood would have a milky tinge to it. But this usually doesn't last long because the excess fats get stored away. 

Your liver can also make some triglycerides from carbohydrates.

A number of things can cause your triglyceride levels to be higher than what's considered healthy. They include:

  • Regularly eating foods that are high in fat or sugar
  • A BMI (body mass index) of 25 or higher
  • Not getting enough exercise 
  • Smoking tobacco 
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol 
  • Having a genetic disorder that affects how your body breaks down lipids
  • Thyroid disease
  • Type 2 diabetes that isn’t well controlled 
  • Liver or kidney issues
  • Certain medicines, including hormones, beta-blockers, and corticosteroids

If you have high triglycerides, you probably won't have any symptoms. The only way to check for them is a common blood test called a lipid panel. You might also hear this called a lipid test, cholesterol panel, or coronary risk panel.

A lipid panel checks for cholesterol, as well as triglycerides. Cholesterol is different than triglycerides. They're both waxy substances that serve important body functions in healthy amounts. Too much of each can be can be harmful. But cholesterol isn't a fat. And it's only made by your liver.

You're usually asked to fast overnight before you take this blood test. Fat from a recent meal can skew the results.

When to take a triglycerides test

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests that everyone should first get a lipid test when they're between 9 and 11 years old. Then, the test should be repeated every 5 years.

  • If you're AMAB (assigned male at birth), you should have a lipid test every 1-2 years between ages 45 and 65.
  • If you're AFAB (assigned female at birth), you should have a lipid test every 1-2 years between ages 55 and 65.
  • After the age of 65, it's recommended that you have a lipid profile every year.

You may need tests more often if your test results come back high, you take medication to lower your cholesterol, or you have risk factors for heart disease.

The National Cholesterol Education Program has set these guidelines for triglyceride levels:

  • Normal levels: Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter
  • Borderline high: 150 to 199
  • High: 200 to 499
  • Very high: 500 or more

High levels may lead to heart disease, especially if you have low levels of "good" cholesterol and high levels of "bad" cholesterol. The same is true if you have type 2 diabetes.

A good diet and exercise plan can lower triglyceride levels, improve cholesterol, and decrease your risk of heart disease.

Triglyceride levels are directly affected by the foods you eat, so changing up your diet can have a big impact.

High-fiber diet

Getting at least 25 grams of fiber each day can help decrease triglycerides, as well as your cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight. Soluble fiber turns into a gel in your digestive tract, trapping fats so they can't all be absorbed. Insoluble fibers helps keep you regular. 

Some fiber-rich foods to add to your diet include:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Oatmeal (If it's instant, choose a kind without sugar.)
  • Green vegetables.
  • Whole-wheat bread, pasta, or crackers
  • Brown rice
  • Sweet potatoes

Vegetarian diet

Foods high in saturated fat, such as red meat, can raise your triglycerides. Studies show that when you cut out animal products, your intestine absorbs fewer triglycerides. A plant-based diet can also help lower your "bad" cholesterol.

Try making meatless meals, like vegetarian pastas, chilis, and stir-fries. If you're not ready to go full vegetarian, choose lean meats, such as chicken and unprocessed turkey, that are lower in saturated fat.

Low-carb diet

Avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates is another way to help lower triglyceride levels. For instance, you could try to cut back on:

  • Table sugar 
  • White rice
  • White flour
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes
  • Packaged foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup

Talk to your doctor about a healthy eating plan that will work for you. 

The main way to deal with high triglycerides is to eat more healthy foods and try to stay active. 

Here are some guidelines to help you manage your level:

Do moderate exercise. Try to exercise 5 or more days each week. Lack of movement makes it harder for your body to process blood sugar and triglycerides. So it’s important for you to get up and get moving as much as you can. Skip the escalator or elevator and climb stairs. Get off the bus or subway one stop early and walk. 

Find activities you enjoy: Walk with a friend, swim, or ride a bike. If you haven't been active in a while or have other health issues, talk to your doctor before you begin a new exercise plan.

Watch your weight. If you’re carrying extra pounds, losing 5% to 10% of your weight can lower triglycerides. People with a healthy weight are more likely to have normal levels. Belly fat in particular is linked to higher numbers. 

Trying to get to a healthier weight can feel really challenging at first. Think about sharing your goals with friends and family members who will support you and help you stay motivated.

Eat foods with fewer carbs and less saturated fat. It may be easier than you think. For instance:

  • Swap out dishes loaded with cream or cheese for recipes that use vegetable or olive oil and feature plenty of vegetables. 
  • Choose whole-grain instead of white pasta. 
  • Look for a tasty whole-grain bread for sandwiches. 
  • Eat brown, instead of white, rice. 
  • Instead of white potatoes, try grains like quinoa and barley.

Drink less alcohol. Beer, wine, and liquor can raise levels. Some studies show that more than one drink a day for women or two for men can increase levels by a lot. If you’ve cut back and your triglyceride levels aren’t going down enough, your doctor may suggest skipping alcohol altogether.

Eat fish. Mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a fat that helps keep triglycerides down. Make sure to prepare your fish in a healthful way. Frying uses a lot of added oil – the unhealthy type, with saturated fat. That can overpower the healthier fat found in fish. Instead, try grilling or broiling. 

If you're not a fan of fish, other good sources of triglyceride-lowering omega-3s are walnuts, flaxseed, soy products like tofu, and dark greens.

Supplements to lower triglycerides

If you're interested in taking a supplement to improve your lipid profile, talk to your doctor about:

  • Fish oil. Some are for sale at stores, but prescription versions are more potent. Fish oil isn't safe for everyone to take. High doses can cause issues with blood clotting.
  • Curcumin. One study found that extracts of this compound (the main ingredient in turmeric) helped lower triglycerides in 1 month.
  • Guggul. This tree resin extract has been used in ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years. Some studies show that it may help reduce your triglycerides, while others don't show much of a difference. Guggul supplements can also cause liver issues in some people who take them.
  • Niacin. This B vitamin used to be suggested to improve your lipid profile. But there's not really data to support its benefits. Taking it can also cause some harmful side effects, including raising your risk of diabetes.

Drink more water. Sugar and fructose – which are used as sweeteners in soda, sweet tea, and fruit juices – can raise triglycerides. The extra calories in sugary drinks can also make you gain weight, which puts added strain on your heart.

Water is the most convenient and inexpensive thirst quencher around. If you're craving flavor, try squeezing lemon or lime into sparkling water. Leave the sugar out of your tea and try one flavored with herbs, spices, or flowers.

Check the portion size. Very large meals can spike your triglyceride level, which can increase your risk of a heart attack. Divide your usual serving in half. At home, cook the usual amount but serve only half. At restaurants, divide your meal into smaller portions. Eat slowly to give your body time to figure out when you're full. Get another helping only if you're still hungry. If you feel satisfied, pack away what's left to enjoy later.

Don’t skip meals: Maybe you're too busy to eat. Maybe you think you'll lose weight if you skip a meal. The problem: You're likely to get so hungry later that you'll grab anything, healthy or not. Or you overeat at the next meal, which causes triglyceride levels to jump. It’s better to eat reasonably sized meals a few times a day. Enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner and stick to recommended serving sizes. Have healthy snacks like nuts, fruit, or carrot and celery sticks around when hunger strikes.

Quit smoking. If you smoke, your risk of heart disease dramatically increases. Make up your mind to quit. If you need help making a plan, talk to your doctor. It might help to:

  • Choose a date to give up your habit. 
  • Get support from friends and family. 
  • Buy sugar-free gum and low-calorie snacks to reach for instead of cigarettes. 
  • Talk to your doctor about medications that may help you quit. 
  • Find a local support group. 
  • Stay committed – giving up tobacco can add years to your life.

Eat more soy and tree nuts.Tree nuts like walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, and pecans are loaded with "good" fats, rich in omega-3s, and contain fiber and other natural substances that boost heart health. Aim for four to six servings each week. Look for kinds that are unsalted and don't contain added sugar.

Soy nuts are another choice, although their heart health benefits are not as clear and more studies need to be done.

Because nuts are high in calories, a serving may be smaller than you think: 1.5 ounces (about a small handful) or 2 tablespoons of nut butter.

Lifestyle changes are often the best approach to lowering triglycerides. But some people need medication as well. Among the options that your doctor could prescribe:

  • Fibrates (Fibricor, Lopid, and Tricor) make it harder for your body to bundle up triglycerides and carry them through your blood.
  • Statins (Crestor, Lipitor, Zocor) are used to lower cholesterol but can help with triglycerides too.
  • High doses of omega-3s (Epanova, Lovaza, Vascepa)

Like all medicines, triglyceride treatments can have side effects. You may notice: 

  • Nausea 
  • Weakness 
  • Bloating 
  • An aftertaste

If you don’t like how your medicine makes you feel, tell your doctor. You may be able to switch to another drug or take a smaller dose. 

Not all medicine affects people the same. You may need to try a few medications until you find the one that works best for you. 

If you follow your treatment plan carefully, you could start to see a drop in your triglycerides within a few weeks.

Triglycerides are fats in your blood that come from eating extra calories. High levels can raise your risk of heart issues. Eating healthier and exercising more is often enough to lower them, but medication can help if not.

Which is worse: cholesterol or high triglycerides?

There are two types of cholesterol. 

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the "bad" kind. It creates a waxy, gunky buildup that can narrow your arteries and add stress to your heart.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is considered to be "good" cholesterol. It grabs up some "bad" cholesterol from your arteries and returns it to your liver where it can be broken down.

There are no "good" or "bad" triglycerides. Having too much of them is always a health concern. That's especially true if you have too much "bad" cholesterol and not enough of the "good" kind.