It’s a silent tsunami, because it doesn’t cause symptoms until the later stages, and many people don’t know they have it. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition where the liver becomes clogged with fat, resulting in excessive levels of fat in the bloodstream, or triglycerides. Normally, your liver should contain between 5 and 10% fat, but if you have NFLD, it’s significantly higher, so it leads to health problems.
Why is there so much concern about this lesser-known health problem? Research shows that NAFLD prevalence in North America is high, and many people with NAFLD have no symptoms and are unaware that they have it. Yet NAFLD can be a ticking time bomb that can lead to liver failure in the severest cases.
In a certain percentage of people, NAFLD progresses from too much liver fat to inflammation and even cirrhosis or scarring of the liver. While some people with NAFLD never develop problems, it can lead to serious liver damage that requires a liver transplant.
What Causes Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Unlike alcoholic fatty liver disease, where alcohol damages the liver, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is associated with obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. NAFLD is more likely to develop in obese persons than in normal-weight persons. Even without symptoms, the buildup of fat in the liver can cause serious damage if it continues for an extended period, culminating in cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance go hand-in-hand. Having insulin resistance increases the risk of developing NAFLD. When the body is insulin resistant, sugar builds up in the bloodstream and does not get into cells as easily. People with NAFLD have high triglycerides and low HDLs and are at greater risk of heart disease.
Most people think of liver disease as coming from alcohol abuse, but NAFLD is not caused by alcohol consumption, although alcohol abuse can further liver damage. It can happen to people who don’t drink at all.
What type of diet predisposes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease? Many years ago, physicians considered NAFLD a disease caused by eating a high-fat diet, but now they know that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar and the weight gain they cause are more problematic.
The good news is that lifestyle changes can reverse NAFLD in some people. Here are some lifestyle factors, backed by science, that may reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Losing weight can help reduce the fat in the liver and decrease blood triglycerides. Some people who successfully lost weight and had NAFLD when they were obese found that by losing weight, their symptoms improved, and their liver function normalized.
An analysis of 22 studies discussed on EndocrineWeb.com shows that weight loss is the best treatment for NAFLD. Losing as little as 10% of body weight can reduce liver fat and improve health. Some research even shows losing as little as 3% of body weight is beneficial for reducing liver fat.
Eliminate Refined Carbohydrates and Sugar
Most people with NAFLD are obese and have insulin resistance, a condition where cells can’t process sugar well. When cells are insulin resistant, sugar builds up in the bloodstream and does not get into cells as easily. People with NAFLD tend to have high triglycerides and low HDLs (good cholesterol) and therefore at greater risk for cardiovascular disease.
When you’re insulin resistant and eat a diet rich in refined carbohydrates and added sugar, it worsens insulin resistance and makes it easier for your liver to store fat. Plus, a diet rich in refined and processed carbohydrates leads to weight gain, another factor that worsens non-alcoholic fatty liver.
Instead, replace those refined carbohydrates with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean sources of protein. Choose healthy fat sources, including the monounsaturated fats in olive oil, avocados, and macadamia nuts. This is the backbone of the Mediterranean diet, an eating plan physicians often recommend for NAFLD.
Research shows that exercise plays a role in reversing NAFLD. In some studies, regular exercise alone helped reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, but in other cases, exercise with a low-calorie diet was more effective. One way exercise reduces liver fat is by helping with weight loss and reducing insulin resistance.
Better insulin sensitivity improves how easily cells remove glucose from the bloodstream and decreases the amount of fat the liver produces. You don’t have to run a marathon to get benefits either. A daily brisk walk, especially walking after meals, is helpful. Do it for your liver and your health too!
Replace Sweetened Beverages with Water
Sugar-sweetened beverages, especially those that contain high-fructose corn syrup, can worsen fatty liver disease. The reason? The liver metabolizes fructose in a way that increases triglycerides and liver fat storage. It’s best to avoid all sweetened beverages and replace them with water. Hydration is essential for everyone, but make sure you’re not drinking soft drinks or beverages with added sugar.
How about sugar-free soft drinks? Avoid them if you’ve been diagnosed with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Studies have linked sugar-sweetened beverages and liver disease for a few years now. And new research shows diet soda isn’t much better. Some researchers regard it as a possible culprit in the disease’s progression.
Although alcohol isn’t the cause of NAFLD, drinking alcohol can further damage your liver. Also, make sure you’re not taking medications that can affect your liver function, as many can. If you have to take a medication known to alter liver function, ask your physician to closely monitor your liver enzymes for signs of damage. You should be doing that anyway if you have NAFLD.
The Bottom Line
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a health problem that can often be improved or reversed through lifestyle. But be sure to see your physician regularly and follow their advice.
- “Weight Loss is Key to Improving Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver ….” endocrineweb.com/professional/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease/weight-loss-key-improving-non-alcoholic-fatty-liver-di.
- “Can You Reverse Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?.” webmd.com/digestive-disorders/reverse-nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease.
- “Treatment of NAFLD with diet, physical activity and exercise.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28545937/.
- “Definition & Facts of NAFLD & NASH | NIDDK.” niddk.nih.gov/health-information/liver-disease/nafld-nash/definition-facts.
- “Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) — American Liver ….” liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/diseases-of-the-liver/non-alcoholic-fatty-liver-disease/.
- “Mediterranean diet and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease ….” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24966604/.