Best and Worst Foods for Your Liver, According to a Dietitian
The liver is an important organ that helps rid the body of waste or "toxins" and it does a fantastic job of doing so. And no restrictive "cleanses" or "detox diets" are needed for the liver to do its job well. All the blood leaving your stomach and intestines pass through the liver. The liver processes the blood and keeps the healthy nutrients, while excreting the waste. Additionally, the liver is identified as having over 500 other important functions including:
- Producing bile, which helps carry away waste and breaks down fat in the small intestine
- Producing cholesterol and specific proteins that help carry fat through the body.
- Clearing the blood of drugs and other toxins.
- Regulating blood clotting.
- Removing bacteria from the blood and producing immune factors to help fight infections.
According to the Fatty Liver Foundation, about 100 million Americans have a condition known as fatty liver, which is when fat accumulates in the liver and causes inflammation and generally makes it harder for your liver to function at its best. Fatty liver disease can be caused by alcohol or diet. In 5 million people, fatty liver can progress to a condition known as liver cirrhosis and potentially end in liver failure.
Even if you don't have a diagnosed liver condition, it's important to take care of your liver, just like it's important to take care of your heart and brain. You can do so by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and eating the foods that help your liver work to the best of its ability—while cutting back on a few that aren't as helpful.
Best foods for your liver
In general, an overall healthy diet, which includes plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, high-fiber whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein sources and calcium-rich dairy items or dairy alternatives is what your liver—and the rest of your body—runs best on. On a more specific level, studies have shown certain foods can be exceptionally helpful when it comes to protecting from liver disease and improving outcomes for those with liver disease. Below are four of the best and four of the worst foods for your liver.
1. Avocado Oil
Folks with fatty liver tend to a have a condition known as insulin resistance. This means that your body can make insulin but cannot use it efficiently in the body. Insulin is made by your pancreas and helps carry glucose (AKA sugar) out of your bloodstream and transports it into your body to be used by your cells. Someone with insulin resistance can have insulin build up in the bloodstream, and this can also affect your liver too. A 2019 study found that avocado oil can help decrease liver inflammation association with non-alcoholic fatty liver. All the more reason to top your grain bowl with avocado, add it to your smoothies, scoop up some guacamole or substitute high-heat canola or vegetable oil with avocado oil.
2. Olive oil
Olive oil's healthy monounsaturated fats have been associated with decreasing fat content in the liver in rats with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A study published in World Journal of Gastroenterology found that rats with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease given olive oil decreased the build-up of a fat called triglycerides.
Even though the study was in done rats (human studies are the gold standard), olive oil's benefits have long been researched, so rest assured. Not only is olive oil beneficial when it comes to improving our lipid profile (meaning the amount of triglycerides, HLD (or "helpful") cholesterol levels and LDL (or "less helpful") cholesterol levels in our blood) it also helps to decrease inflammation throughout the body.
A 2020 review published in Nutrients found that omega-3 fatty acids can help decrease inflammation found in fatty liver disease. In addition, the review study found that omega-3s may also improve blood levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides and HDL or the helpful cholesterol, as well as having a positive effect on body mass. Omega-3 fats can be incorporated into the diet by including fatty fish like salmon or tuna several times a week.
According to a 2017 study published in Journal of Translational Internal Medicine, antioxidants called polyphenols may help with the treatment of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease by increasing fatty acid oxidation (or breakdown) and better controlling insulin resistance, oxidative stress and inflammation, which are the main factors linked to the progression from simple fat accumulation to fatty liver disease. Polyphenols are found in high amounts in berries likes strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.
Worst foods for your liver
While no single food is completely off limits, it's best to limit these four for general health and wellbeing as well as liver health.
Alcohol-related liver disease is due to years of drinking too much alcohol. Excessive drinking is defined as more than eight alcoholic beverages per week for women and more than fifteen alcoholic beverages per week for men. One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquid like rum or vodka. Eventually, the liver becomes inflamed and irreversible damage to the liver known as cirrhosis. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation which is defined as a maximum of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day men.
2. Fried foods
Fried foods, like chicken fingers and French fries, are high in saturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat can make it tough for your liver to do its job and over time, can lead to inflammation of the liver and possibly irreversible liver damage (AKA cirrhosis). According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it's recommended to keep saturated fat to less than 10% of your total daily calories, or about 13 grams.
3. Processed meats
Processed meats like salami, bacon and hot dogs tend to be very high in saturated fat, which when eaten over time may lead to damage of your liver. If you choose to eat processed meats, do so in small amounts and choose lean and very lean meats whenever possible.
Added sugar provides little to no nutrients. Having too much added sugar can cause the liver to convert the excess sugar to fat, which over time can contribute to fatty liver disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of your total calories come from added sugar. As such, it's important to pick and choose how you want to use your added sugar and do so sparingly.
Eating a healthy diet, which includes plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, high-fiber whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein sources and calcium-rich dairy items or dairy alternatives is what your liver—and the rest of your body—runs best on. If you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation, and keep fried foods, processed meats and added sugar (from foods like soda) also to a minimum.