Most of us know little about non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD. In fact, we usually associate liver disease with alcohol abuse. But as the name suggests, alcohol is not a determining factor in NAFLD. Food is. In this article, you’ll learn about foods that promote liver health and can help eliminate NAFLD, the most common form of liver disease in the developed world.
Often, NAFLD has no symptoms, at least at first
The fact that many people with NAFLD show no symptoms and suffer no apparent damage, at least initially, may explain our lack of awareness about the disease.
But just as high blood pressure can be a hidden risk factor for heart disease, NAFLD is the silent precursor to serious complications, including a form of hepatitis called NASH, and inflammation and liver injury that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Cardiovascular-related risk factors
NAFLD afflicts nearly one out of three U.S. adults and is closely associated with commonly recognized cardiometabolic risk factors, including obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and glucose intolerance.
But exactly what causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease remains uncertain. Current studies are preliminary.
Scientists, however, have strong suspicions. For example, in a review in Practical Gastroenterology, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center concluded that it is highly likely that just as lifestyle-related factors like obesity and high cholesterol cause heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions, they may well cause NAFLD.
Foods that promote liver health
Researchers suspect, too, that the same food and fitness programs that reduce cardiovascular risk may reduce NAFLD risk, NASH, and the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer. The dietary focus, scientists say, should be on whole or minimally processed foods that are naturally high in nutrients and naturally low in fat, salt, and sugar, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes (beans).
In a recent issue of Today’s Dietician, Erin McCarthy, MS, RD, CSSD, concludes, “No specific medications are approved for treating NAFLD. The current standard of care for treating patients with NAFLD focuses on lifestyle interventions, particularly diet and exercise.”
Modest weight loss
Most people with NAFLD are overweight. What’s heartening to know is that even a modest 5 to 10% weight loss leads to significant benefits.
Eliminating saturated and trans fats
In addition to lowering calorie intake to reduce weight, studies indicate that following a low-fat diet that cuts out saturated fats and trans fats reduces the levels of fat in the liver.
Similarly, a reduction of added sugars, especially fructose often found in soft drinks, improves liver health.
“We see many people with NAFLD improve tremendously”
At the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Florida, which has been helping people shed weight and reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease for the past four decades, “we see many people with NAFLD improve tremendously,” notes Danine Fruge, MD, Medical Director at Pritikin.
“Right along with reversal of metabolic problems like pre-diabetes, they’re seeing reversal of NAFLD.”
Foods that promote liver health
The foods served at the Pritikin health resort, which make up the Pritikin Eating Plan, include bountiful servings of whole, naturally fiber-rich foods like:
- Fruit (whole fruit, not fruit juice)
- Whole Grains
- Legumes (Beans)
Also served at Pritikin is protein from lean animal sources, such as skim milk, nonfat Greek yogurt, and lean meat (no more than 4 ounces daily) like fish, skinless chicken breast, and bison.
“In essence, the Pritikin Eating Plan give us everything we need for good, long-lasting health while avoiding the excesses that promote obesity and our most common diseases,” sums up Kimberly Gomer, Pritikin’s Director of Nutrition.
Daily physical activity
Just as regular exercise, both aerobic and resistance training, reduces the risk factors for cardiac events and diabetes, some studies suggest it can also reduce the likelihood of NAFLD.
“You are helping both your heart and liver.”
If all these foods that promote liver health, plus recommendations for daily fitness, sound very similar to the Pritikin Program for heart health, they are.
So as you faithfully live the Pritikin lifestyle, “you should feel doubly good,” sums up Dr. Fruge. “You are helping both your heart and liver, and they, in turn, are helping each other help you live long and well.”
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