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What Are Triglycerides? - Definition & Overview

What Are Triglycerides? - Definition & Overview
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  • 0:00 What Are Triglycerides?
  • 1:00 The Chemistry of Triglycerides
  • 2:02 Triglycerides and Health
  • 3:05 Monitoring Triglyceride Levels
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
A triglyceride is a molecule that acts as an essential energy source in your body. But even though it's essential, too much of it can be bad for you. In this lesson, learn about this molecule's structure and the role it plays in your body.

What Are Triglycerides?

If you have had a checkup with your doctor recently, you may have had your blood drawn for various tests. On your report card you probably saw an entry for triglyceride levels. But what is a triglyceride, and what does it mean for your health?

A triglyceride is a type of fat, or lipid, which is present in blood and is stored in fat cells. Your body converts food that you don't immediately need for energy into triglycerides. Your liver is responsible for manufacturing the molecules of triglyceride for stored energy. From the liver they move through the bloodstream to fat cells for storage until you need them.

While your body metabolizes extra calories into triglycerides for storage, you also consume them directly from certain foods. Triglycerides are one of the main components in many vegetable oils as well as animal fats. High triglyceride levels in your blood are associated with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and fatty liver disease.

The Chemistry of Triglycerides

A triglyceride is a lipid molecule made up of one unit of glycerol and three fatty acids, hence the tri- prefix, which means three. A triglyceride looks a little bit like a creature with three tails. The head is glycerol, which is a simple sugar alcohol compound. By itself, glycerol is used as a food additive for sweetening and preserving foods. It is also used as a lubricant in pharmaceutical and hygiene products, like soap and toothpaste. It is also a main component of antifreeze because it freezes at a lower temperature than water.

When glycerol links up with three fatty acids, you get a molecule of triglyceride. Fatty acids are compounds that look like long chains, or tails. At one end is the 'head,' which is the part that links up to the glycerol. After the head is a long tail of carbon atoms. The three fatty acids of a triglyceride are what make this compound useful as an energy source. When the tails are broken down, they release energy.

Triglycerides and Health

Having high triglyceride levels in your blood is not a disease or illness in itself, but it can lead to certain health problems. Triglycerides are necessary as an energy source, but having too many of them circulating in your blood can contribute to atherosclerosis, or a hardening of arteries. This, in turn, leads to an increased risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. Having a high level of triglycerides is also associated with metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity, all of which also increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

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