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Preventable liver disease is rising: What you eat, and avoid, counts

Kathleen Viveiros, M.D., Harvard Health Blog on

Published in Health & Fitness

In today’s fast-paced world, our waking hours are filled with decisions — often surrounding what to eat. After a long day, dinner could well be fast food or takeout. While you may worry about the toll food choices take on your waistline or blood pressure, as a liver specialist, I also want to put fatty liver disease on your radar.

One variant, officially called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), now affects one in four adults globally. Sometimes it progresses to extensive scarring known as cirrhosis, liver failure, and higher risk for liver cancer. The good news? Fatty liver disease can be prevented or reversed.

What is fatty liver disease?

Fatty liver disease is a condition caused by irritation to the liver. Liver tissue accumulates abnormal amounts of fat in response to that injury. Viral hepatitis, certain medicines (like tamoxifen or steroids, for example), or ingesting too much alcohol can all cause fatty liver disease.

However, NAFLD has a different trigger for fat deposits in the liver: a group of metabolic risk factors. NAFLD is most common in people who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance (prediabetes), or type 2 diabetes. It is also common among people who are overweight or obese, though it is possible to develop NAFLD even if your body mass index (BMI) is normal.

What helps prevent or reverse NAFLD?

 

Diet can play a huge role. Because NAFLD is so closely tied to metabolic health, eating more healthfully can help prevent or possibly even reverse it. A good example of a healthful eating pattern is the Mediterranean diet.

Overweight or obesity is a common cause of NAFLD. A weight loss program that includes activity and healthy eating can help control blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Among the many healthful diet plans that help are the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if you need help choosing a plan.

To vigorously study any diet as a treatment for fatty liver disease, researchers must control many factors. Currently, no strong evidence supports one particular diet over another. However, the research below highlights choices to promote a healthy liver.

Avoid fast food

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