High triglycerides can have just as much of an impact on your heart as other heart disease risks, such as high cholesterol. Studies show that as more Americans have become overweight over the past 30 years, high triglycerides have become a problem for about one in five people.

“Research suggests that high triglycerides may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Knowing your triglyceride level is as important as knowing your good and bad cholesterol numbers,” says Danya L. Dinwoodey, MD, a cardiologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. “In many cases, high triglycerides and low ‘good’ cholesterol numbers go together, and these risks may run in families.”

A healthy diet to lower triglycerides is an important part of getting your triglycerides under control. As a matter of fact, according to the American Heart Association, healthy choices in diet and exercise are even more important than medication to lower triglycerides for most people.

Healthy or High: Understanding Triglyceride Numbers

“You want to keep your triglyceride number under 150. The higher your number goes, the more you are at risk,” says Dr. Dinwoodey. Here are the numbers you should know:

  • Normal triglycerides are less than 150 mg/dL.
  • Borderline triglycerides are between 150 and 199 mg/dL.
  • Over 200 mg/dL is too high.
  • Over 500 mg/dL is very high.

“High triglycerides are associated with obesitydiabetes, kidney disease, and thyroid disease. The first thing your doctor will do is try to correct any of these problems. Over the long term, the most important thing you need to do is make lifestyle modifications to keep triglycerides in check,” says Dinwoodey.

Choosing Foods That Lower Triglycerides

A diet to lower triglycerides is about striving not to take in more calories than your body can use. That may mean eating less and exercising more. When you take in more calories than you need, your body changes those calories into triglycerides and they get stored in your fat cells.

Here are tips to help you choose calories well and lower your triglycerides:

  • Reduce saturated fats and trans fats. These are the fats commonly found in animal products, fast foods, commercially baked goods, and other packaged foods.
  • Use healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These are found in olive oil or canola oil for cooking.
  • Get most of your calories from fruits, vegetables, and non-fat or low-fat dairy products.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation. “Alcohol is full of empty calories that are particularly bad for high triglycerides,” warns Dinwoodey.
  • Avoid added and refined sugars.
  • Eat fish as a protein source once or twice a week. “Coldwater fish oils, such as those in salmon, are high in omega-3 fatty acids that help lower triglycerides,” says Dinwoodey.
  • Make sure you have plenty of fiber in your diet. Whole-grain products add fiber and help you avoid overeating because they fill you up.
  • Limit your total dietary cholesterol to 200 mg per day.

heart-healthy diet to lower triglycerides includes lowering sugar, lowering fat, and limiting alcohol. However, if you have a very high triglycerides or a combination of high triglycerides and low HDL (good) cholesterol or high LDL (bad) cholesterol, you may need medication along with diet to lower triglycerides. Your doctor can help you determine if you need to be taking medication in addition to your diet changes.

Related: 8 Tips to Lower Triglycerides

Everyone over age 20 should have their lipid profile checked with a simple blood test as part of a routine physical. If you haven’t had it checked yet, now is a good time. When it comes to high triglycerides and bad cholesterol, what you don’t know can hurt you.