By George Henderson and Grant Schofield
If you have a standard lipid test done in New Zealand and most other parts of the world, it will usually give a couple of ratios at the bottom. One of these is the fasting triglyceride-to-HDL cholesterol ratio.
It can also be calculated from the other measurements using this online calculator.*
Note that the reference range says that under 2 is ideal, 2-4 is “normal”, over 4 is high.
In our opinion TG/HDL ratios in the 2-4 range may be normal, but they are still likely to be unhealthy or predictive of future ill health. Why is this?
Fasting triglycerides (TG) are usually low (<1) in low carb, fat-adapted people. An exception can be during rapid weight loss.
If TG are high in the fasting state this indicates insulin resistance, and when triglycerides are too high their transfer to the HDL particles causes the HDL count to drop. Because the natural range of TG is fairly wide and context-dependent, the value of this single measurement is disputed, and HDL and the fasting TG/HDL ratio are taken as the more sensitive markers.
Another value is that these are cheap markers which are commonly tested. While there others that may be better, such as fasting insulin or 2-hour insulin, the TG/HDL ratio, especially considered in the context of other common measures including HbA1c and LDL cholesterol, often gives a valuable “look under the hood” at the state of metabolism and hormonal health.
We are constantly asked to comment on standard lipid panels. We think the TG/HDL ratio tells you a fair bit. So here’s our take.
First we will discuss evidence for HDL independently, then for the TG/HDL ratio.
This slide is from the SMART study group, and represents the risk for “all vascular events” in a lipid-lowering trial in 6,111 individuals with a previously diagnosed arterial disease. The controls were a group taking a low-dose statin that didn’t significantly lower their LDL. As you can see, only the control arm in the highest quartile for HDL at baseline had a significant risk reduction. The mean baseline TG/HDL ratios by HDL quartile were 6.2, 3.6, 2.9, and 1.6.
What’s intriguing about this is that these are people with pre-existing arterial disease, often from years earlier (historical). The high HDL quartile has the lowest rates of diabetes and metabolic syndrome and the lowest BMI (25.1 vs 28.1) and waist circumference (92 vs 99.3 cm), so does this group include more historical cases, and represent to a greater extent these men and women who, after their event or diagnosis, managed to improve their hormonal metabolism in various ways? We don’t know, because this kind of evidence isn’t supplied, but an earlier study from the SMART study group showed this interesting correlation between HDL , LDL and new events in a population at high risk (with high cholesterol or high blood sugar). Highest HDL (≥1.50 mmol/l) is protective in people with high LDL (≥2.5 mmol/l), whereas for those with low LDL, a lower HDL is sufficient (≥1.26). Again this is with a TG/HDL ratio of 1.6 in the combined upper HDL quintile, and 2.7 in the 4th quintile.
Some further evidence about TG and HDL comes from an older set of data, the Helsinki Heart Study. In this study a fibrate, Gemfibrozil, was used to lower cholesterol (fibrates lower triglycerides and small, dense LDL), and there was an untreated placebo arm (black bars). Here in this placebo arm we can clearly see the effect of triglycerides and HDL in reducing risk.
In the placebo group (n = 2,045), the low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C)/high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) ratio was the best single predictor of cardiac events. This ratio in combination with the serum triglyceride level revealed a high-risk subgroup: subjects with LDL-C/HDL-C ratio greater than 5 and triglycerides greater than 2.3 mmol/l had a RR of 3.8 (95% CI, 2.2-6.6) compared with those with LDL-C/HDL-C ratio less than or equal to 5 and triglyceride concentration less than or equal to 2.3 mmol/l. In subjects with triglyceride concentration greater than 2.3 mmol/l and LDL-C/HDL-C ratio less than or equal to 5, RR was close to unity (1.1), whereas in those with triglyceride level less than or equal to 2.3 mmol/l and LDL-C/HDL-C ratio greater than 5, RR was 1.2. The high-risk group with LDL-C/HDL-C ratio greater than 5 and triglyceride level greater than 2.3 mmol/l profited most from treatment with gemfibrozil, with a 71% lower incidence of coronary heart disease events than the corresponding placebo subgroup. In all other subgroups, the reduction in CHD incidence was substantially smaller.
Summary so far: From both the SMART study and Helsinki we see that the TG/HDL ratio is especially important when LDL cholesterol is high. Why is this?
In this graph from a paper by Boizel et al you see that the TG/HDL ratio predicts LDL particle size. The proportion of small, dense atherogenic LDL particles rises sharply, and the proportion of intermediate and large particles falls, as the TG/HDL ratio increases in these patients (n=60 with type 2 diabetes and HDL ≥ 1 mmol/l).
The typical dyslipoproteinemia of type 2 diabetes is characterized by elevated VLDL, small (dense) LDL particles, and decreased HDL (4). The percentage of individuals having small LDL is increased by at least twofold in type 2 diabetes (5).
The prevalence of this qualitative abnormality of LDL has been reported to be surprisingly high, even in the absence of the characteristic diabetic dyslipidemia. Thus, up to 45% of patients with low triglyceride (TG) levels and an even higher percentage of patients with borderline hypertriglyceridemia have small LDL, in comparison with 30% in nondiabetic men and 10% in nondiabetic women (5–8).
Three prospective studies have established that small dense LDL is the best predictor
of future coronary artery disease (CAD) in nondiabetic subjects, even after adjustment for confounding by TG, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol levels (9).
These authors propose a TG/HDL ratio cut-off of 1.5 to diagnose atherogenic LDL particle size in people with type 2 diabetes.
The fasting TG/HDL ratio is highly correlated with 2-hour insulin (insulin levels 2 hours after consuming glucose) and, with a higher cut off, is also predictive of fasting hyperinsulinaemia. Insulin activates the same HMG-CoA reductase (HMGR) pathway that statins inhibit.[6, 7, 8] This explains why the protective effects of HDL and of statins are not at all additive, and why in SMART and Helsinki, as well as the JUPITER trial, lipid lowering treatments made little or no difference to high HDL and/or low TG groups, who were already at lower risk.
This evidence also predicts that drugs such as statins may be more effective than the large studies say they are when patients are carefully chosen on the basis of individual diagnostic markers, including the fasting TG/HDL ratio; bearing in mind, however, that this is an easy marker to change with a low carb healthy fat diet, which, if it changes the TG/HDL ratio, will also change LDL particle size and insulin levels for the better, amongst other things. There will be less chance of harmful side effects on the LCHF diet compared to drug interventions.
- LCHF will have an important and postive effect on the fasting TG/HDL ratio
- Fasting is critical. There has been a tendency in NZ, to go with non-fasted. We imagine this is just easier because of compliance issues. But it totally ruins the ratio as TG change rapidly when you eat. They are very prone to a rapid rise with carb intake because insulin fluxes carb-derived TG out of the liver.
- Fasted TG and HDL measures will mean your estimate of LDL (which is never directly measured) will be more accurate. So our advice is to do the blood lipid tests fasted for a more accurate and meaningful result.
Lowering of 2-hour post-prandial insulin response by a 20% carbohydrate diet vs 40% carbohydrate, from Gannon and Nuttall 2009.
*Note that the TG/HDL ratio in NZ is calculated using mg/dl values, as in the US, even though NZ lipid measurements themselves are given in mmol/L. mmol/L ratios, which give different numbers, are used in Europe, but all the literature we’re citing here is using the mg/dl ratios, which are in any case more convenient.
 van de Woestijne AP, van der Graaf Y, Liem A, Cramer MM, Westerink J, Visseren FJ. Low High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol Is Not a Risk Factor for Recurrent Vascular Events in Patients With Vascular Disease on Intensive Lipid-Lowering Medication. J Am Coll Cardiol.2013;62(20):1834-1841.
 Hajer GR, van der Graaf Y, Bots ML, Algra A, Visseren FL; SMART Study Group.
Low plasma HDL-c, a vascular risk factor in high risk patients independent of LDL-c.
Eur J Clin Invest. 2009 Aug;39(8):680-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2362.2009.02155.x. Epub 2009 May 12.
 Manninen V, Tenkanen L, Koskinen P, et al.
Joint effects of serum triglyceride and LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol concentrations on coronary heart disease risk in the Helsinki Heart Study. Implications for treatment.
 Boizel R, Benhamou PY, Lardy B, Laporte F, Foulon T, Halimi S. Ratio of triglycerides to HDL cholesterol is an indicator of LDL particle size in patients with type 2 diabetes and normal HDL cholesterol levels. Diabetes Care. 2000 Nov;23(11):1679-85.
 Li C, Ford ES, Meng YX, Mokdad AH, Reaven GM.Does the association of the triglyceride to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol ratio with fasting serum insulin differ by race/ethnicity?
Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2008;28;7:4.
 Ness GC, Zhao Z, Wiggins L.
Insulin and glucagon modulate hepatic 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A reductase activity by affecting immunoreactive protein levels.
J Biol Chem. 1994 Nov 18;269(46):29168-72.
 Vincent TS, Wülfert E, Merler E.
Inhibition of growth factor signaling pathways by lovastatin. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 1991 Nov 14;180(3):1284-9.
 Chen H, Ikeda U, Shimpo M, Shimada K.
Direct effects of statins on cells primarily involved in atherosclerosis.
Hypertens Res. 2000 Mar;23(2):187-92.
 Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ.
Control of blood glucose in type 2 diabetes without weight loss by modification of diet composition.
Nutrition & Metabolism2006;3:16