Fatty liver disease is a condition in which fats accumulate in liver cells. Two types exist – alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD) and non-alcohol fatty liver disease (NAFLD). As their names suggest, AFLD is triggered by excessive alcohol intake, whereas NAFLD is not. Instead, NAFLD is commonly associated with obesity, unhealthy diets, and sedentary lifestyles.
The incidence of fatty liver disease is on the rise worldwide and in Singapore. Some estimates put the prevalence of fatty liver in Singapore at 30-40%, which is higher than the world average of roughly 24%. If left untreated, fatty liver disease has the potential to escalate into fibrosis and cirrhosis, which impair the functions of the liver. This can ultimately lead to liver failure and liver cancer.
How does diet play a part in liver health?
As a significant contributor to fatty liver disease is diet, one of the primary ways to combat it is by altering one’s diet to a healthier one. An appropriate diet can help with weight loss, which reduces the risk factor of attaining liver disease. In individuals with the disease, a drop in weight of 10% is significant enough to decrease liver enzyme to healthier levels.
A balanced diet will help the liver receive the necessary nutrients it needs to operate smoothly. Thus, a liver-healthy diet will also be beneficial for overall liver health, reducing the risk factors for liver diseases, and benefitting patients with other liver conditions like hepatitis B and C.
In general, the recommended diet for optimal liver health is one that is low-fat, reduced in calories and high in fibre. Below are some recommendations of foods to include and to avoid in your diet.
Foods to include:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Greens like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprout contain glutathione, a compound that promotes the detox functions of the liver. These fibre-rich vegetables also give a feeling of fullness, which prevents overeating and helps with weight loss.
- Fatty fish: Fish like salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to lower fat levels in the liver and reduce inflammation. As an alternative to other meats, it can reduce consumption of unsaturated fats from other meat sources.
- Nuts & seeds: Almonds and sunflower seeds are sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant that has been associated with improved liver health. Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, glutathione, as well as arginine, an amino acid which assists liver cleansing processes.
- Cold-pressed, organic oils: Olive oil, hemp oil, and flaxseed oil are high in omega-3 fatty acids, and are healthier alternatives to butter, margarine and vegetable oil. The unsaturated fat content helps to reduce liver enzyme and fat levels in the liver.
- Garlic: The popular herb contains sulfur and selenium, which are known to help the liver remove toxins and boost antioxidant levels in the liver. Garlic also flavours food, reducing the amount of unhealthy seasoning like salt and sauces that would be added otherwise.
- Low-fat dairy: The protein in milk helps in tissue reparation, and protects the liver from damage. For a healthier option, opt for skimmed or fat-free milk.
- Coffee & tea: Caffeine has been found to bring unhealthy liver enzyme levels down. Green tea also contains catechin, an antioxidant that assists liver function. Some studies find that green tea can also reduce fat levels in the liver.
Foods to avoid:
- Alcohol: The main contributor to AFLD and numerous other liver diseases is excessive alcohol intake. Alcohol in the body damages liver cells, and over-consumption can cause inflammation and scarring. Alcohol also causes the body to store more fats, contributing to fatty liver.
- Added sugar: High blood sugar leads to increased fat buildup in the body, including at the liver. Sugary foods to avoid include cakes, cookies, candies, and sweet drinks.
- Fried food: Due to the amount of oil used in frying, these foods are typically high in fat and calories. Thus, they do no good to health and are huge contributors to weight gain.
- Salt: Heavy sodium intake can damage the liver by causing inflammation and cell death. For a healthy diet, the recommended daily intake of sodium should not exceed 1,500 milligrams.
- Processed grains: White rice, pasta, and bread are made of highly processed grains, which have a higher glycemic index (GI) than its less-processed counterparts. High GI foods lack fibre and raise blood sugar, leading to fat buildup and weight gain.
As with all diet recommendations, consistence and moderation are paramount to its success. If you are at high risk of liver disease or have already been diagnosed with a liver condition, you should speak to your doctor about a personalised diet plan.