Medically reviewed by Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD
What is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease and How Do I Prevent It?
Many people assume that liver disease is directly correlated to the amount of alcohol that a person consumes throughout their lifetime. However, some types of liver disease have nothing to do with alcohol consumption. This condition is known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
This condition often develops slowly, and symptoms, if there are any, are easy to ignore. Currently, doctors are unaware of any direct causes of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and instead have isolated a few different risk factors, like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It’s thought that at least 100 million individuals in the United States have NAFLD, although it could be more since it can be so challenging to spot.
So, how do you prevent a disease that doesn’t have any known direct causes? All you can do is mitigate your risk factors and eat a healthy diet of food that’s tailored to your body. Today, we’ll explore NAFLD, and show you how to keep yourself healthy after a diagnosis.
What is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition that’s caused by irregular fat build-up in the liver. It’s normal for the liver to contain some fat, but if the percentage of fat exceeds 5% to 10% of the liver’s weight, doctors classify that as fatty liver disease.
In many cases, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has no symptoms. It’s not uncommon for doctors to spot cases of NAFLD while doing routine blood work or examinations, and notice that the patient’s liver enzymes are surprisingly high. If they notice unusual enzyme activity, they will confirm their diagnosis with medical imaging or a liver biopsy.
Common Symptoms of NAFLD
Despite the fact that many people have no symptoms, it is still possible to develop some symptoms of NAFLD, especially if the condition has progressed. The most common symptoms are fatigue, and pain in the abdomen.
What’s the Difference Between NAFLD and NASH?
If you have a standard case of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, you will need to carefully maintain or lower the level of fat in your liver through diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. By making sensible choices, you can live a long and healthy life despite having NAFLD.
However, in some cases, NAFLD may develop into a more dangerous and damaging condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). NASH occurs when the fat in your liver causes it to become inflamed, which can cause damage to your cells. Only about 20% of individuals with NAFLD develop NASH.
If NASH is allowed to progress untreated, the liver can develop cirrhosis (scarring) as a result of the inflammation. This cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer or end-stage liver failure, where the liver stops functioning altogether.
Is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Genetic?
Currently, doctors have noticed that some individuals seem to have inherited a genetic predisposition for NAFLD from other family members who also have the condition.
However, the extent of this genetic connection is still unknown. Scientists are actively studying the genetics of NAFLD, and have determined a few different genes that may play a role. These studies are still ongoing.
How Can I Prevent NAFLD?
One of the unfortunate realities of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is that it can develop in otherwise healthy individuals. Even children can develop this disease.
Currently, doctors believe that obesity and high levels of blood fat are the two most common risk factors for NAFLD. If you’re diagnosed with fatty liver disease and you’re overweight, your doctor will likely suggest losing at least 3% to 5% of your body weight as soon as possible. This can limit the amount of fat stored in your liver, and help mitigate ongoing damage.
Regular exercise, and eating a healthy, plant-based diet will help limit the negative effects of this disease.
What Foods Should I Eat and Avoid to Prevent NAFLD?
If you’ve been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, you’ll want to know what fatty liver foods to avoid to keep your liver as healthy as possible. Generally, you should maintain a plant-based diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You should avoid alcohol whenever possible.
In addition to skipping alcohol, you should avoid foods with added sugar, or anything high in fat, especially saturated fats, and calories like refined carbs, deli meats, or red meat.
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