Fatty liver disease is a condition usually associated with alcoholism. But what's getting attention now is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). As the name suggests, NAFLD is when fat accumulates in the liver for reasons other than alcohol abuse.
And it's a growing condition: an estimated one-third of American adults have it. (For perspective, that's nearly triple the number of those with type 2 diabetes.) Most people show no symptoms at all, which is why it's called a "silent" disease. And, as many as 1 in 5 cases progress to a more aggressive form of liver inflammation, called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
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Experts aren't sure of the cause, but hold off on hitting the panic button—most people with NAFLD don't develop further complications.
And there are clear risk factors for NAFLD:
• High cholesterol
• High triglycerides
• High blood pressure
• Excess belly fat
The go-to screening is to check liver enzymes with a blood test. If they're abnormal, noninvasive ultrasound or MRI scans can reveal if there is further damage.
Diet and exercise are proving to be effective solutions. Losing 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight can reduce liver inflammation and fat buildup in the organ. But keep the shedding gradual—a pound or two a week. Dropping too much weight too fast may worsen the disease.
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As far as what to eat, think along the lines of the Mediterranean diet: diets higher in olive oil and omega-3s, lower in saturated fats, and including plenty of fruits and vegetables. When in doubt, steer away from the hallmarks of a Western diet—processed meats, full-fat dairy and refined carbs.
• Processed meats
• Refined carbohydrates like white bread
• Cakes and baked goods
• Soft drinks
• Added sugars
• Saturated fats
Of course, when poking around on the internet turns up so-called health claims with no science to back them up, things sound scary. One popular claim is that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is public enemy No. 1 when it comes to the liver. No, HFCS alone isn't likely to be a major cause of NAFLD, but research does support cutting back on sodas and added sugars for liver health. Some other touted recommendations—turmeric, milk thistle, coffee, garlic, green tea, ginger, dark chocolate—may reduce inflammation, but the evidence is weak that any of them improve NAFLD.
Experts are concerned about the rise of NAFLD because most cases go undiagnosed, and if NAFLD progresses, the complications can be serious. If you're at risk, talk to your doctor so you can take steps to protect your liver if necessary.