What to Eat to Treat or Reverse “Fatty Liver,” from a Registered Dietician
It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of adults in the United States have fatty liver disease, which is between one-third and one-half of all the people you know! Given how common fatty liver is, everyone needs to understand what it means, how to treat it, and what you can do if your doctor ever looks at your blood test and tells you that you have what's called Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD.
Fatty Liver is a condition where fat deposits build up in the liver, one of the most important organs in the body, responsible for filtering and clearing all the various foods and chemicals that enter your body. When your liver is healthy, you never really think about it, but when it gets clogged up with fat it can cause problems that have far-reaching health ramifications. Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease is largely influenced by lifestyle choices and what you eat can play a big role in reversing it. That's good news since it means we can influence the amount of fat in our livers by what we eat, drink, and our daily physical activity.
Here are the best foods to eat to reverse fatty liver and what to stay away from
The Role of The Liver
To understand what fatty liver is, we first have to understand the role of a normal, functioning liver. The liver is the largest internal organ of the body (after the skin) and is located on the upper-right side of the abdomen, above the stomach. It actually has more than 500 vital functions! However, the two main functions of the liver are to:
- Remove toxins from the blood
- Process food nutrients. Blood from the digestive system travels to the liver first, before being sent elsewhere in the body.
What Is Fatty Liver?
Fatty liver is simply a condition where there is excess fat being stored in your liver cells. Although it is normal to have a certain amount of fat in the liver, the liver is considered fatty if it is more than 5 percent fat. In most cases, fatty liver doesn’t prevent your liver from functioning normally. However, it can progress to more concerning states over time. Doctors may warn you that if you don't get it under control, as the liver attempts to repair and replace damaged cells, scar tissue can form, and when extensive scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, this "fibrosis of the liver" can lead to cirrhosis of the liver. This is when liver failure can happen.
What Causes Fatty Liver
In addition to genetic factors, you have a great risk of developing fatty liver if you are experiencing any of the following:
- You Drink Too Much Alcohol
Alcoholic fatty liver is the accumulation of fat in the liver as a result of heavy drinking. The first thing your doctor may do is tell you to quit alcohol to see if this clears it up.
- You Have Been Diagnosed with Obesity
Especially those who have high levels of body fat around the abdominal area; 70 to 80 percent of people who are obese have fatty liver.
- You Have High Blood Sugar or Insulin Resistance
You are far more likely to have fatty liver if you are diabetic, prediabetic, or have insulin resistance. The liver tends to store more fat when you are resistant to insulin.
- Your Triglyceride Levels are High
Triglycerides are the major storage and transport form of fatty acids within blood cells and in the plasma. The liver is the central organ for fatty acid metabolism so high triglyceride levels can be a clue that you have fatty liver disease.
Here's What to Eat for Fatty Liver
Research suggests that adhering to a healthy, mostly plant-based diet, is associated with a lower risk of a fatty liver. This could be true for several reasons.
High Fiber diets have been shown to reduce the progression of fatty liver disease. Fiber, found in plant-based foods like vegetables, legumes, fruit, and whole grains, helps to manage high blood sugar and treat insulin resistance, and therefore treat fatty liver disease. Fiber (which is not present in any animal-based food) also helps keep us satisfied, by making us feel full longer, so it helps us eat less and lose weight.
Keep in mind: Fiber is only found in plant foods! Eat a high-fiber diet of salads, vegetables, fruit, legumes like beans and chickpeas, and whole grains like oatmeal.
Plant-based foods also tend to be anti-inflammatory. When the liver is fatty, it is often inflamed.
Here are specific plant-based foods that can help with fatty liver
A review from 2019 found that soy protein reduced fat buildup in the liver. Soy protein contains antioxidants called isoflavones that help improve insulin sensitivity. Improving insulin sensitivity helps to reduce overall body fat and fat buildup in the liver. Whole or minimally processed soy protein examples include:
- Soy Milk
A meta-analysis in 2016 suggested that consuming Omega 3 fatty acids improves the level of liver fat and HDL (aka good) cholesterol levels in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. These are heart-healthy fats from plant-based sources such as nuts. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
Research has suggested that a higher flavonoid intake is associated with a lower likelihood of fatty liver, across various ethnicities. Flavonoids are plant chemicals (or phytonutrients) that provide health benefits through cell signaling pathways and antioxidant effects. Flavonoid-rich foods are foods of a plant origin and include:
- Tea, especially green tea
- Fruit, specifically apples, cherries, and citrus
- Vegetables, especially leafy veggies and onions
- Grains, such as quinoa and oatmeal
- Legumes, such as beans and chickpeas
- Nuts, especially walnuts
Foods to Limit For Fatty Liver
- All Meat
A review from 2019 noted that saturated fat intake from meat increases the amount of fat that builds up in and around the organs, including the liver.
This one is obvious, but alcohol is the most common cause of fatty liver disease. A person with fatty liver should reduce their intake of alcohol or remove it completely.
- Added Sugar
Sugar that occurs naturally in fruit or whole foods (such as vegetables) is not a bad thing. However, we want to avoid added sugars, as they can contribute to high blood sugar levels and excess fat in the liver. Studies suggest that high fructose is associated with a fatty liver. But don’t give up fruit since fruit is packed with nutrients and fiber, and is a minor source of fructose. The biggest source is high-fructose corn syrup. Get rid of all sweetened drinks, pastries, cookies, desserts, and breakfast cereals.
Bottom Line: You can get rid of fatty liver. If you can remember the acronym SOF, for Soy, Omega 3’s, and Flavonoids, when planning your whole-food, plant-based diet, you're on your way. Cut out all alcohol and added sugar and you have a good chance of reversing or preventing fatty liver!