What is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

A Healthy Diet May Reduce Your Risk of NAFLD

obese man's stomach making shirt buttons pull
Obesity can harm your liver. David Zaitz/Stone/Getty Images

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD, is on the rise in the United States thanks to a huge increase in obesity rates over the last three decades. In industrialized countries, 20 to 40 percent of the general population has some form of fatty liver disease and tThe chances of its progressing increase with age.  

Officially recognized as a disease in the early 1980s, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease perplexed the medical community.

 Obese and diabetic patients had elevated liver enzymes and enlarged livers virtually identical to those typically seen in alcoholics, but most of them insisted they were not drinking excessively.

Liver Function Basics

The liver is your largest internal organ. It performs hundreds of functions including:

  • processing everything you eat and drink
  • pulling toxins from your blood
  • fighting off infection
  • controlling blood sugar levels
  • helping to manufacture hormones and proteins

Too Much Fat Causes Serious Problems

The liver normally weighs about three pounds. When more than 5 to 10 percent of your liver’s weight is fat, you have a “fatty liver.” While excess liver fat, or steatosis, causes no problems for some, it can cause symptoms of impaired liver function, including:

Inflammation that causes scarring is a hallmark symptom of liver injury in advanced non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to cirrhosis.

Once you damage your liver, your body lays down collagen to repair it. Fibrosis or thickening of the liver tissue then ensues.

As the non-alcoholic fatty liver disease progresses, about 10 percent of cases will develop over the next ten years into the much more serious NASH, or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.

NASH can lead to:

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Disease

An accurate diagnosis of non-alcoholic liver disease is the first step towards treating this, sometimes, serious health condition. Your physician will usually diagnose fatty liver disease by:

Common Characteristics of NAFLD Patients

Though the exact causes of NAFLD are not known, patients have some pre-existing conditions in common, including:

What’s more, the severity of NAFLD increases with the degree of obesity, and abdominal or belly fat seems to increase the risk of dangerous NASH, even in patients with a body mass index (BMI) in a normal range.

NAFLD and Your Diet

What you eat and the nutrition it provides contributes to the onset, progression, and treatment of NAFLD.

Dietary factors that increase your risk include consuming:

  • a high-calorie diet
  • a diet rich in hydrogenated oil (trans fats)
  • too much protein from animal sources, resulting in a high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol
  • too many beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup

Dietary factors that reduce your risk of NAFLD include:

  • consuming fewer calories
  • eating protein from whey or vegetable sources, instead of from meat and cheese
  • losing 3 to 10 percent of your bodyweight
  • adding fiber, green tea, and coffee to your diet

Sources:

Angulo, Paul, and Lindor, Keith. Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology (2002) 17 (Suppl.) S186–S190.

Fatty Liver Disease. Canadian Liver Foundation Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 10, 2012.

Lazo, et al. “Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and mortality among US adults: prospective cohort study.” BMJ. 2011 Nov 18;343:d6891.

Ludwig, et al. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: Mayo Clinic experiences with a hitherto unnamed disease. Mayo Clin Proc 1980; 55:434-8.

Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). American Liver Foundation Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 10, 2012.

Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis. US Department of Health and Human Services Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 7, 2012.

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