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Learning a little more about triglycerides

"Keep writing about your family," I was reminded by a reader last week. Truth be told, not everything in my family has to do with nutrition. Then I received a phone message from my mother-in-law. And it was about nutrition.

"Hello, dear," she said. "I was wondering -- at your convenience -- if you could give me some nutrition guidance about triglycerides. What are they? Where do they come from? How can we avoid having problems with them in our blood work?"

Good questions, Carolyn. Here are some answers:

What are triglycerides? Simply said, triglycerides ("try-GLISS-er-rides") are fats. Most of the fat (95 percent) in our food and almost all (99 percent) of the fat in our body is in the form of triglycerides. Triglycerides are named for their chemical structure -- 3 ("tri") fatty acids attached to a molecule of glycerol ("glyceride").

Depending on what type of fatty acids they are made from, triglycerides are said to be "saturated" or "unsaturated." Food fats that are solid at room temperature (think butter) are more "saturated." Those that are liquid (like oils) are more unsaturated. Triglycerides in the body have many functions. They cushion body parts. They provide energy to body cells. And when not needed for immediate energy (such as when we zone out on the couch with chips and dip), triglycerides happily find a home in fat storage depots known as adipose tissue.

Where do they come from? Triglycerides are in fat-containing foods such as mayonnaise, nuts and oils. They are also present in meats, fish, poultry and dairy foods.

In our bodies, triglycerides are formed when we consume more calories (body fuel) than we need for our daily activities. Excess calories from any source -- fat, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), protein or alcohol -- can trigger the formation of triglycerides (fat) in the body.

How can we avoid having problems with triglycerides in our blood work? "High triglycerides" means that blood is laden with fat not good for a heart that has to pump it. Start by cutting extra fat from your diet, especially the saturated variety often found in processed and packaged food. The goal is not to eliminate all fat, however. Some fats (such as the unsaturated variety) are essential.

Eat fewer sweet goodies. High blood triglycerides respond well to diets lower in carbohydrates (sugars and starches). Cutting back on alcohol also helps lower triglycerides.

What foods do you recommend (that help control blood triglycerides)? First, fish at least two servings a week. Omega 3 fatty acids in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines can help lower triglycerides.

Second, high fiber carbohydrate foods (whole grains, fresh fruit, vegetables, beans and legumes) in place of more refined sugars and starches.

Third, lower fat meat, poultry and dairy foods. And small amounts of unsaturated fats like nuts, oils and avocados.

What foods should we avoid (that increase blood triglycerides)?

No food is totally off limits if you can eat it in moderation, which I love to say when I bake brownies. Just be aware that excessive amounts of sugar and fat and alcohol can raise blood triglycerides significantly.

Hope this helps.

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