Lipids, also referred to as fats, are one of the three macronutrients that are an essential part of the diet. There are various types of lipids, including steroids, phospholipids, and triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of lipid that the body can use for both immediate and stored energy.
When you eat a meal, your body uses the nutrients from that meal as energy or fuel. However, if you eat a meal with too much energy (too many calories), this excess energy gets converted into triglycerides. These triglycerides are stored in fat cells for use at a later time.
The most common concern about triglycerides is high triglyceride levels. High levels of triglycerides in the blood may to atherosclerosis, the clogging and hardening of the arteries. Because of this, high triglyceride levels may increase your risk of heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
Low triglyceride levels may be a health concern as well. Let’s look at how low triglycerides may affect your health and how to prevent and treat related problems.
The most common blood test used to check your triglyceride levels is called a lipid panel. A standard lipid panel will test for the following:
- total cholesterol
- LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
- HDL (“good”) cholesterol
- cholesterol/HDL ratio
- non-HDL cholesterol
Your doctor will use a lipid panel to determine if your triglyceride levels are within normal range.
Normal triglyceride levels are < 150 mg/dL. Triglyceride levels between 150 and 199 mg/dL are borderline high. High triglyceride levels occur at 200–499 mg/dL. Anything over 500 mg/dL is considered very high.
There is no current range for low triglyceride levels. However, if your triglyceride levels are very low, this may indicate an underlying condition or disease.
A healthy diet
We know that an unhealthy diet can cause high triglycerides, while a healthy diet generally leads to low triglycerides.
One interesting note is that sometimes low triglyceride levels can occur with high LDL levels (which often indicate a higher heart disease risk). If low triglyceride levels lower heart disease risk, but high LDL levels increase it, what can cause this inconsistency?
There are two types of LDL particles that should be taken into account when calculating heart disease risk:
- LDL-A particles are larger, less dense, and lower your risk.
- LDL-B particles are smaller, denser, and increase your risk.
When you have low triglyceride levels but high LDL levels, it could indicate that you have a diet filled with healthy fats.
Healthy fats will not only cause an increase in good cholesterol (HDL) but can also change the type of the LDL particles in the blood. Therefore, those high LDL levels may not actually be a bad thing.
Instead, it is more likely that they are LDL particles that have become larger and less dense from the intake of healthy fat. Low triglycerides and high HDL levels in the blood will generally support this idea.
A very low-fat diet
Low-fat diets aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Research has shown that low-fat diets can be an effective way to lose weight. However, anything done on an extreme scale can be dangerous, and very low-fat diets are no exception to the rule.
People on low-fat diets who are consuming very little fat may have lower triglyceride levels. With fat being an essential part of human metabolism, it is important to consume at least some fat — preferably, the healthy kind.
Fasting is the abstinence of food and drink, and for some people it’s one of the ways in which they improve their health. Fasting can have many health benefits, from lowering blood sugar and lipid levels to aiding in weight loss.
In a small 2010 , researchers found that in people who partook in alternate-day fasting (a type of intermittent fasting) over eight weeks, triglyceride levels were lowered by roughly 32 percent.
A longer period of fasting may produce more dramatic results. For those with already normal levels, this could potentially lead to very low triglyceride levels.
Instead of fasting for long periods of time, or fasting every other day, a shorter stint of intermittent fasting may be just as effective, without lowering your levels too much. This could mean fasting for 8 or 16 hours each day, rather than skipping food entirely for 24 hours.
Malnutrition occurs when the body is not getting enough of, or alternately too much of, certain nutrients. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2.3 billion adults in the United States experience malnutrition in some form.
Undernutrition can lead to deficiencies in important nutrients, including macronutrients such as lipids. Some symptoms of malnutrition include:
- weight loss, fat loss, and muscle mass loss
- hollow cheeks and eyes
- a protruding, or swollen, stomach
- dry and brittle hair, skin, or nails
- emotional symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and irritability
If someone is experiencing severe undernutrition, their triglyceride levels may be well below the normal range. Undernutrition is best treated with increased food intake and, in some cases, supplementation of vitamins and minerals.
Malabsorption is a condition in which the small intestine is unable to properly absorb the nutrients from food. Causes of malabsorption may include damage to the digestive tract, diseases affecting the digestive tract, or even certain drugs. For people who experience malabsorption, the body may not be able to properly absorb carbohydrates, proteins, or fats.
There are many symptoms of malabsorption. However, fat malabsorption can lead to a condition called steatorrhea. Steatorrhea is a major indicator that your body isn’t absorbing fats properly. You may notice:
- pale and foul-smelling stools
- stools that are bulkier and float
- grease or fat in your stools
- drops of oil or fat in the water surrounding your stools
People who have trouble absorbing fats may have low triglyceride levels. Treatment for steatorrhea involves addressing underlying conditions that may be causing malabsorption with medication and lifestyle changes.
The thyroid gland plays a crucial role in regulating metabolism. In people with an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), regular metabolic processes can be greatly affected. Some of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- an enlarged thyroid gland, called a goiter
- unintentional weight loss and appetite changes
- alterations in heart rate
- thinning of the skin and hair
- cognitive changes, such as increased anxiety or nervousness
One of the biggest indicators of hyperthyroidism is unintentional weight loss. Generally, this weight loss occurs regardless of food intake. This means that the body is always using up more energy than that person is consuming. People with hyperthyroidism may have low levels of triglycerides due to the increased use of these triglycerides for fuel.
According to a from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly “78.1 million Americans were already taking or are eligible for cholesterol-lowering medication.” Cholesterol medication, or lipid-lowering drugs, are one of the ways in which people can get their cholesterol levels under control.
There are many different types of lipid-lowering medications, including statins, PCSK9 inhibitors, and more. Statins, fibrates, and omega-3 fatty acid ethyl esters are three types of lipid-lowering drugs that are known to lower triglyceride levels.
If you’re concerned that your cholesterol-lowering drugs are causing your triglyceride levels to drop too low, consider speaking with a doctor to switch medications.
Low triglyceride levels are generally not dangerous. In fact, research supports the idea that low triglyceride levels can offer certain health benefits.
In one 2014 study, researchers found that lower non-fasting triglyceride levels were associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality in almost 14,000 study participants.
Another smaller 2017 found that low triglyceride levels were linked to improved brain function in older adults without dementia.
However, incredibly low triglyceride levels may be linked to other conditions, as mentioned above. Some of these conditions in and of themselves may be dangerous, so it becomes important to treat the underlying condition that’s causing low triglycerides.
The best treatment for low triglycerides is to find and treat the underlying cause. For some conditions, such as malnutrition, it may be as simple as making dietary changes. For other conditions, such as malabsorption and hyperthyroidism, medication and lifestyle changes may be necessary.
If low triglyceride levels are the result of not getting enough fat in the diet, here are some suggestions for healthy dietary practices:
- Total dietary fat intake should be anywhere from 20–35 percent of total calories for the average person not on a low-fat diet.
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats should make up the majority of fat consumed in the diet, as these are the most heart healthy.
- Saturated fats and cholesterol should be limited, and artificial trans fats should never be consumed.
Keeping your triglycerides within the normal range is relatively easy with a well-rounded diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the following dietary and lifestyle changes to keep your heart healthy and your triglyceride levels normal:
- Keep your calories within normal range for your age, gender, and activity level.
- Eat a varied diet that includes all the major food groups, especially fruits, vegetables, and heart-healthy oils.
- Avoid overeating foods that contain empty calories, as these can be stored as fat.
If you’re concerned that your triglyceride levels are low for another reason, such as an underlying condition, reach out to your doctor. They can use a lipid test, among other medical tests, to find the root cause of your low triglyceride levels.