Are you looking for an extra push to cut down on your fast food and junk food intake? Look no further! A new study published by Keck Medicine of USC in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology reveals an alarming connection between fast food and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a common condition where fat accumulates in the liver, and which can be potentially fatal.
Fast food and convenience food are ingrained in the fabric of society. It’s easy to succumb to the convenience of a drive-thru but it will do little for the health of your liver. This study finds that if you consume 20% or more of your daily calories from fast food, you could be putting yourself at risk for fatty liver and jeopardizing your health. Why is this important? Just look at all the functions your liver carries out:
- Metabolism: Your liver helps metabolize nutrients from food, such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and converts them into energy and other useful compounds.
- Detoxification: It plays a critical role in detoxifying harmful substances, such as alcohol and drugs, and neutralizing toxins produced by bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut.
- Blood filtration: Your liver filters blood coming from the gut and the rest of the body, removing impurities and waste products.
- Hormone regulation: It produces and regulates various hormones, including insulin-like growth factor 1 and vitamin D, that are important for growth, metabolism, and overall health.
- Blood clotting: Your liver produces clotting factors that are necessary for blood coagulation and wound healing.
- Immune system support: It plays a role in the immune system by producing and storing immune cells and helping to remove old and damaged cells from the bloodstream.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a growing health problem, and many people don’t know they have it, as it produces no symptoms in its early stages. According to Ani Kardashian, MD, a hepatologist with Keck Medicine, and lead author of a recent study, a healthy liver should contain only a small amount of fat, typically less than 5%, and consuming fast food can increase fat build-up. The study also found that individuals with obesity or diabetes are at an even greater risk of building up dangerous levels of fat in their liver.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at the liver fat profiles of nearly 4,000 adults and compared them to their fast-food consumption. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed ate some fast food, and of those, 29% consumed one-fifth or more of their daily calories from fast food. Only the latter 29% of survey subjects experienced a significant increase in liver fat levels.
These findings are a wake-up call that highlights the impact of fast food on our health and the importance of being mindful of our dietary choices. This study suggests that convenience comes at a price, and we need to limit fast food intake and incorporate more whole foods into our diets.
The Risks of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Why the concern about NAFLD? It’s often a silent disease as it has no symptoms and can go undiagnosed for many years. Around 25 to 30% of people have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and many don’t know they have it. The first sign you have it may be abnormal liver enzymes on a blood test. However, NAFLD can lead to serious health problems, including liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
NAFLD is closely associated with obesity and metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. These risk factors include hypertension, diabetes, and elevated LDL cholesterol.
People who have metabolic syndrome are more likely to develop NAFLD. So, if you have any of these risk factors, you may already be at risk of developing NAFLD, and eating fast food could compound that risk.
Why Is Fast Food Harmful to Your Liver?
There are lots of reasons fast food is hard on your liver. (And your health) First, it’s often high in calories, which can lead to weight gain and obesity. As mentioned, obesity is one of the main risk factors for NAFLD. Obesity increases the amount of fat stored in your liver. The excess fat in the liver can cause inflammation, leading to the development of NAFLD.
Second, fast food is often high in saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats increase the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the blood, which can contribute to the development of NAFLD. Trans fats can also contribute to the development of NAFLD by increasing inflammation and insulin resistance in the body.
Third, fast food is often high in sugar. Consuming high amounts of added sugars can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance, all of which can contribute to the development of NAFLD. So, fast food doesn’t have a lot of things going for it. It’s also low in nutrients and fiber. Plus, these foods aren’t satisfying, and some studies suggest they may even be addictive.
A fast-food diet isn’t healthy for your waistline or your liver. According to this study, consuming junk food in amounts equal to a fifth of your total calorie intake or more may place your liver at risk. So, stop making those stops at the drive-thru and eat a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains These foods will provide your body with essential nutrients and help reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
In addition, enjoying more whole foods is better for maintaining a healthy weight and offers more sustained energy. So, skip the fast food and instead choose healthy, nutrient-dense whole foods to reap the full benefits of a nutritious diet.
Know your risk factors for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease too. If you have a family history of it, you’re at higher risk too and it will be even more important to eat a healthy diet and stay physically active.
- Ani Kardashian, Jennifer L. Dodge, Norah A. Terrault. Quantifying the Negative Impact of Fast-food Consumption on Liver Steatosis Among United States Adults with Diabetes and Obesity. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2023; DOI: 10.1016/j.cgh.2022.11.040.
- Drillinger M. Here’s How Fast Food Can Impact Your Liver￼. Healthline. Published January 13, 2023. Accessed January 14, 2023. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/heres-how-fast-food-can-impact-your-liver
- Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. Hopkinsmedicine.org. Published November 19, 2019. Accessed January 14, 2023. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease