Fatty liver, otherwise known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) , has become a global epidemic in the last decade. One quarter to a third of the adult population in North America has fatty liver and many don’t know it. One in ten children also have it, which demonstrates that it’s not caused by alcohol intake.
Effects of Diet on Body
When the documentary “Supersize Me” was released, it showed the damage that fast food, such as fries, burgers and soft drinks can have on the body.
The cardiovascular and immune system are significantly affected by ultra-processed foods and fast foods. The liver processes toxins in our body, and when fed a big proportion of ultra-processed food with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), refined oils and sugar/sweetened beverages, our insides pay the price of those convenience foods.
There is a link with HFCS and the development of fatty liver disease. There was a study from the National Institute of Health in 2020, by Dr. Michael Karin, which demonstrated that mice developed fatty liver within a month of consuming sugary drinks
As sugary drinks satisfy our sweet tastes, our liver and mice livers are getting fat with the sugar overload.
Many food companies use HFCS as an additive in their products as a cheap flavouring. In everyday food items, such as baked goods, cereals, pop/soft drinks, coffee flavourings, candies and cookies. Unexpectedly, it’s not just sweet foods that have HFCS, it’s also in savory items, such as pizza, salad dressings, ketchup and barbeque sauces.
Even foods that are seemingly healthy choices, such as yogurt and protein bars may have this sneaky ingredient added for flavour. If the food product is made in a factory and can be unwrapped, that’s a good indication that it may have added sweeteners that can stress our liver.
As liver specialist, Dr. Theodore Friedman, Ph.D. states,
“High fructose corn syrup can lead to NAFLD by several mechanisms. It can increase the amount of fat made by the liver. It can also increase inflammation in the liver and can change how the liver metabolizes glucose. It can also increase abdominal fat.”
As the blood cholesterol and triglycerides rise, the liver cells are replaced with fat cells, which promotes liver inflammation. As fatty liver continues and develops, scarring and fibrosis occurs that will eventually lead to irreparable liver cirrhosis.
The most common cause of death for people with fatty liver is cardiovascular and heart disease, and surprisingly, not liver disease. Fatty liver is a cardiovascular issue more than a liver problem.
Fatty Liver and Cardiovascular Link
Fatty liver is closely linked with poor diet and lifestyle, and may be an indicator of other metabolic dysfunctions happening with the circulatory system.
The diagnosis of fatty liver is an early warning sign of other systemic, internal problems developing inside. Prediabetes is a common condition that is associated with fatty liver, as there is a dysfunction that is occuring with the insulin response and blood sugars, along with elevated triglycerides. As prediabetes and fatty liver diagnoses are frequently diet related, they can be reversed through lifestyle interventions and dietary improvements.
As people who develop fatty liver may also have cardiovascular problems, a Mediterranean diet is a way of eating that can support cardiovascular health, in addition to healing the liver.
Liver Supportive Vegetables
There are foods that are supportive to the liver, and help with building, repairing and detoxifying the body cells and systems.
Cruciferous vegetables and sulfur-containing bulb foods with a phytochemical called allicin support the detoxifying actions of the liver.
Broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, radishes, kale, beet greens, cabbage and arugula are all vegetables that can help the liver. Garlic, onions, leeks and scallions are sulfur containing bulbs that support liver health.
Healthy Fats for Healthy Liver
One might think that a fatty liver develops from all sources of fat in the diet. This is not the case.
As the evidence is evolving, research has shown that fatty liver is more of a result of ultra-processed and fast foods. Components, such as added sugars/sweeteners, refined, processed fats and oils and deep fried foods appear to be the culprits causing the fatty liver epidemic. Changing the ratio of the diet to include more healthful fats, that are found in whole foods with omega-3, monounsaturated and other polyunsaturated fats are important fats and nutrients for liver health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fish are the most abundant animal source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. By including one to two sources of fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring in the weekly diet, the amount of omega -3 fatty acids recommended will most likely be met for recommended daily intakes. These particular types of fish have lower levels of heavy metals, such as mercury and contain an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Ground flaxseeds, chia and hemp hearts will offer plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Whole foods, such as avocado, nuts and seeds, plus olive oil will provide some beneficial fats for liver and overall health.
Whole Grains for Fibre and Liver Health
95 % of the North American population is not getting the recommended amount of fibre in their daily diet. Part of the reason may be the amount of ultra-processed foods that are consumed every day. Much of the processed and packaged foods that offer convenience do not provide much in the way of fibre.
By contract, whole, minimally processed foods offer a rich source of fibre. Only plant foods have fibre. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes/beans/lentils, nuts and seeds are all healthy sources of fibre to help with cardiovascular and liver health. Fibre will help reduce blood cholesterol and blood sugars to maintain beneficial blood lipid and glucose levels.
Lose The Fat – Reversing Liver Fat
With some changes in the diet and lifestyle, it’s possible to reverse the effects of fatty liver disease and improve overall health and fitness. Including more whole, minimally processed foods daily, plant forward eating, in addition to omega-3 fatty acids and other beneficial fats can help improve liver and overall cardiovascular health. By reducing the fast foods and prepackaged, convenience food products, this will help with weight management and liver function and health.
To learn more about Fatty Liver – How to Put your liver on a diet, tune in to our podcast, My Wife The Dietitian Ep.39