Differences between triglycerides and cholesterol
Lipids (fats) are natural substances, produced by the organism. The most common lipids are cholesterol, triglycerides, fatty acids and phospholipids. These substances are insoluble in water, and therefore cannot circulate freely, but must be associated with proteins, known as apolipoproteins, forming large macromolecular complexes called lipoproteins.
Lipoproteins are complex particles consisting mostly of a central nucleus composed of triglycerides and cholesterol, enclosed by a membrane made of various kinds of fats (phospholipids, free cholesterol) and apolipoproteins, which facilitate the formation and functioning of the lipoproteins.
Lipoproteins intervene in the mechanisms of absorption and transport of nutritional fats from and to the body’s peripheral tissues and the transport of toxic compounds (like some toxins produced by bacteria) away from infected areas.
Cholesterol and triglycerides are the lipids most commonly monitored. Alterations in the levels of these fats appear to be critical in the emergence of some cardiovascular illnesses.
What is the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol?
TRIGLYCERIDES – Triglycerides are the lipids most transported in lipoproteins (which can transport up to several hundred grams of them). They are composed of a molecule of glycerol bonded with three molecules of fatty acids, and they serve as an important energy reserve. The chemical process that converts the food we eat into the energy our cells need is called “metabolism”, and the level of triglycerides is an important indicator of metabolic health.
Factors such as an excess of fats, carbohydrates (sugar, bread, pasta) or alcohol can result in an excess of triglycerides in the body.
CHOLESTEROL – Cholesterol is the other fat most commonly transported in lipoproteins. In vertebrates, including all mammals, it is principally transported in the form of esters of cholesterol, synthesized in the cells or in the plasma itself. As with triglycerides, the transport of cholesterol in lipoproteins delivers the fat to all the tissues that need it for structural purposes or for their metabolism.
Most cholesterol is produced by the body; some is introduced in the diet by a wide range of foods, but especially in products of animal origin (meat, butter, cold cuts, cheese and eggs), rich in saturated fats.
Cholesterol levels can be influenced by a series of factors, among which:
- a diet rich in animal fats
- overweight and obesity
- lack of physical activity
- metabolic dysfunctions like diabetes
The dreaded “bad cholesterol”, or LDL, which represents the majority of the cholesterol in the body, contributes to the formation of accumulations of fat in our blood vessels and is dangerous for the heart when present in excess.
“Good” cholesterol (HDL), instead helps capture LDL cholesterol and makes it easier to eliminate it. High levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of developing some illnesses.
The functions of triglycerides and cholesterol are:
- They are an important source of energy. Triglycerides form when the body takes in more calories than it needs. Excessively high levels of triglycerides can be associated with a greater probability of heart attacks and strokes.
- Unlike triglycerides, cholesterol serves a structural purpose, contributing to maintaining cellular integrity and stability.
- It participates in the synthesis of vitamin D and other substances.
How can you calculate triglyceride and cholesterol levels?
High cholesterol levels do not result in specific symptoms, so it is opportune to monitor levels of this fat. To check whether your levels of cholesterol are too high, a normal blood test measuring HDL and LDL cholesterol levels is sufficient.
In medical terms, the test that measures concentrations of cholesterol in blood plasma is called the “lipidic profile”, which uses data provided by a blood test on the values of the following parameters:
- Total cholesterol, the sum of cholesterol content
- HDL cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol
- non-HDL cholesterol (calculated by subtracting LDL cholesterol from total cholesterol)
Your doctor may recommend a lipidic profile test to provide data on levels of circulating cholesterol.
Below is a list of the “desirable” values for the lipidic profile of adults:
- total cholesterol: values ≤200 mg/dl
- LDL cholesterol: values ≤100 mg/dl
- HDL cholesterol: ≥50 mg/dl
- non-HDL cholesterol: <120-130 mg/dl
- triglycerides: ≤ 150 mg/dl.
How to lower levels of triglycerides and cholesterol
Prevention is the first step towards keeping your cholesterol levels within the recommended ranges.
Here are some important lifestyle habits that help reduce and keep under control levels of cholesterol and triglycerides:
- Engage in regular physical activity. Physical activity is not only fundamental for losing weight, but also for keeping it off. Regular physical exercise contributes to the health of our heart. The effect of physical activity on triglyceride levels varies according to the intensity of the effort expended, the length of time and the calories used up during the activity.
- Follow a healthy diet: simple sugars, like fructose, can cause triglyceride levels to increase; foods with a high saturated fat content cause an increase in bad cholesterol. It is advisable to eat foods containing complex carbohydrates and foods rich in fiber, like greens and whole grains instead of simple sugars, and increase the amount of food rich in mono and polyunsaturates (like fish).
- Keep your weight under control. In light of the continuing increase in overweight and obesity, it is fundamental to keep your weight under control from early childhood on, utilizing an approach designed to balance caloric intake through food with the calories you consume while engaging in physical activity.
Sometimes altering your lifestyle habits is not sufficient to keep cholesterol under control. In this case it is possible to undergo a pharmaceutical treatment and/or a treatment utilizing nutritional supplements.
What to eat if you have high levels of triglycerides and cholesterol
You can reduce your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides by following these simple recommendations:
Choose healthier fats – the fats contained in vegetable oils (like extra virgin olive oil) are preferable, as they are rich in mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Eating foods rich in saturated fats (like whole milk dairy products, fatty meats and tropical oils) should be reduced, in favor of foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish (fatty fish, like salmon, are high in these). It is also advisable to avoid foods high in trans fats (represented mostly by hydrogenated fatty acids) and those containing high amounts of cholesterol (especially egg yolk and mollusks).
Avoid or limit your consumption of alcohol – High alcohol intake is associated with an increase in levels of triglycerides. Alcohol consumption should be limited to no more than two Alcohol Units (1 A.U. = ca. 12 g of ethanol) per day for men and one A.U. per day for women, equal to a 125 ml glass of wine or a bar glass of spirits or a can of medium-strength beer.
Include lots of plant-based foods in your diet (fruit, vegetables and grain, preferably whole grain or brown rice).
- Consume 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily to ensure high nutritive value (vitamins and minerals), protective action (above all, by antioxidants) and fiber intake, along with fewer calories.
- Consume 6 or more portions of grains daily (pasta or rice, bread, focaccia, cookies and other baked goods). Eating grains, especially whole grains, ensures an adequate intake of complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Reduce your consumption of refined sugars – Consumption of refined sugars worsens the lipidic profile (by increasing the levels of triglycerides and lowering the levels of HDL cholesterol) of glycemic metabolism. For this reason, it is advisable to prefer complex carbohydrates (contained in bread and pasta) to refined sugars (found in cakes and sweets, sugared soft drinks and candy).
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