Elevated triglyceride levels are associated with obesity and developing non-insulin dependant diabetes – both of which lead on to a whole host of other health problems. And so having elevated levels are not a good thing. Since triglycerides are 3 fatty acids1 bound by half a sugar molecule, the instinct is to avoid eating fat so therefore triglyceride levels have to drop. Unfortunately this is completely wrong. What elevates triglycerides is a high carbohydrate diet since this raises insulin levels. The mechanisms involved are complex, still being understood – and, of course, argued about.2 But what is incontrovertibly true is that high blood sugar levels kick it all off. So here is a brief explanation of how this happens and just why eating biscuits as a snack, particularly along with tea or coffee is so fattening.
Breakfast. Cereal, toast, porridge. The typical breakfast in the UK is high carb, low fat and this raises blood sugar. Tea or coffee further temporarily raise blood sugar too. Now when blood sugar goes up, because high blood sugar levels damage the brain, the body releases insulin to lower these levels. In our natural state, ie before we started farming, we would only have experienced high insulin levels in late summer/autumn when fruits and berries and food generally would have been available. The body was primed to turn these excesses into body fat to keep us alive in hard times and so it is now – following a sharp rise in insulin, the body activates something called LPL – lipoprotein lipase – sitting across the fat cell walls. Stimulated LPL means the triglyceride content of chylomicrons and VLDLs gets nicely stored into the body fat whilst the muscles are cued to burn blood sugar for energy instead of fat.3
Come mid morning, blood sugar levels have fallen since breakfast, stimulating the hormone glucagon, insulin’s opposite number, which makes us very hungry for something quick and easy to rebuild those damaging low blood sugar levels – damaging to the brain. A cup of tea and a biscuit fits the bill well. When fat is eaten, particularly the fat found in commercial products 4 , it gets taken up by the chylomicrons, transported to the liver and transported out in the VLDLs to the body fat for more fat storage.
Lunch. Typically a sandwich. Also raises insulin, along with the bit of fruit, possible chocolate bar, bag of crisps, fruit juice, coffee and so on. And so the day goes on. Insulin up, fat storage turned on, muscles burning blood sugar for their energy. When I first trained in this gym world, it was drummed into me that we need carbs for energy – and now this is quite clear as to how this could be true. But it isn’t. So how do we lose weight and lower those triglycerides?
Lets look at what happens to someone who eats a low carb diet. Following their breakfast of, say, omelette, at about lunchtime they will start to get a bit hungry. The hunger is ignorable. They are stuck in a meeting. Glucagon is released. And this activates HSL – hormone sensitive lipase – which is inside fat cells. HSL breaks down the stored triglycerides into their component fatty acids which escape through the fat cell walls into the blood circulation as free fatty acids.5 Now they travel to the muscles where they are used for energy – and fat is the body’s preferred form of energy since it yields much greater energy than sugar can.6 So the more HSL, the more the fat is liberated and burnt for fuel and the less fat gets stored away. Insulin suppresses HSL, making it impossible to release body fat for fuel.
There is another villain in the piece – and it is not saturated fat but transfats and rancid fats. Here is another lunch:The onion rings could easily be chips. They will have been fried in oil that has been heated and cooled and heated and cooled. This makes the fat rancid which is very damaging to our health. Rancid fat along with transfats, used in things like biscuits and cakes 7 harden the walls of the cells of the body, meaning that nutrients and waste products cannot get in or out. So even if HSL levels are raised, the free fatty acids will not escape easily into the blood stream.
And so it is that when body fat goes up despite the best efforts to reduce fat intake and eat a ‘sensible’ low-fat diet, the body gets stuck into the insulin/glucagon seesaw, and so gets stuck in fat storage mode. High carb diets lead to an over production of LPL which leads to insulin resistance, greater and greater fat storage, more and more triglycerides, diabetes, obesity and, critically, an increasing inability to use the stored body fat for energy. The key to reducing triglyceride levels lies in stable blood sugar and restoring the natural elasticity of the cell membranes. 8
- The term fatty acids means organic fat – ie produced by the body [↩]
- See also blog Can Body fat make us gain weight which explains a bit about acylation stimulating hormone which is also linked to fat storage and insulin levels [↩]
- Kiens B, Lithell H, Mikines KJ, Richter EA. Oct 1989. Effects of insulin and exercise on muscle lipoprotein lipase activity in man and its relation to insulin action. J Clin Invest 84(4):1124-9 [↩]
- more on this statement later in the blog and much more in the forthcoming blog on saturated fat [↩]
- Free fatty acids attach onto protein albumin since they are not water soluble [↩]
- Braun JE, Severson DL. Regulation of the synthesis, processing and translocation of lipoprotein lipase. Biochem J. 1992 Oct. 15;287 (pt 2): 337-347 [↩]
- Transfats are being phased out – but are not illegal yet. They are industrially altered fats that extend shelf life. They are being replaced with mono-glycerides and di-glycerides, all industrially produced. These things also prolong shelf life. Their effect on our health is not yet known. Personally I do not trust them one bit. [↩]
- The page Why Weight loss is so difficult goes into this. The quickest and simplest answer is to go onto a low carb diet, take plenty of highest quality fish oils and be persistent and patient. [↩]