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 while you might want to support your liver, engaging in restrictive "cleanses" or "detox diets" are not needed for the liver to do its job well.
Here's how it works: All the blood leaving your stomach and intestines passes through the liver. The liver processes the blood and keeps the healthy nutrients while excreting the waste—elements that will not be helpful for your body, and if allowed to build up, could be toxic.
The liver is a multitasker and has been identified as having over 500 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—that's about 1 in 3—have a condition known as fatty liver, which is when fat accumulates in the liver and causes inflammation. This generally makes it harder for your liver to function at its best.
Fatty liver is known as a "silent killer," as most people with the disease have no symptoms until the disease has already progressed to the point of needing a liver transplant. According to the Fatty Liver Foundation, fatty liver disease can be caused by several things, including other chronic diseases, alcohol use disorder and diet.
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, as well as improving outcomes for those who already have liver disease. Below are four of the best and four of the worst foods for your liver.
Folks with fatty liver tend to have a condition known as insulin resistance. This means that your body can make insulin but cannot use it efficiently. 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 affect your liver too.
A 2019 study in The FASEB Journal found that avocado oil can help decrease liver inflammation associated 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.
Olive oil's healthy monounsaturated fats have been associated with decreasing fat content in the liver. In a 2018 review published in Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders Drug Targets, researchers state that extra virgin olive oil has several protective effects on the liver, including protecting against inflammation and insulin resistance, allowing for the prevention or healing of liver damage.
Not only does olive oil help quell liver inflammation, but it also helps decrease inflammation throughout the body. And it has long been known for its beneficial effects when it comes to improving our lipid profile (meaning the number of triglycerides, HDL (or "helpful") cholesterol levels and LDL (or "less helpful") cholesterol levels in our blood). A 2018 review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences suggests that olive oil may also lower blood pressure and has anti-cancer properties.
Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, the type of fat that has been found to have several health benefits, including benefits to the brain, skin, and heart. A 2020 review published in Nutrients found that omega-3 fatty acids can also help decrease inflammation found in fatty liver disease. In addition, the review study found that omega-3s may improve blood levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides and HDL (the helpful cholesterol), and also have 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 the Journal of Translational Internal Medicine, a specific type of antioxidant 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. These components are the main factors linked to the progression from simple fat accumulation to fatty liver disease. Polyphenols are found in high amounts in berries, including 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 well-being, as well as for liver health.
Alcohol-related liver disease is due to years of drinking too much alcohol. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking is defined as having more than seven alcoholic beverages per week for females and more than fourteen alcoholic beverages per week for males. Due to excessive alcohol intake, the liver becomes inflamed and can cause irreversible damage, known as cirrhosis.
One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (like rum or vodka), per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines define moderate alcohol intake as a maximum of one drink per day for females and two drinks per day for males.
Fried foods, like chicken fingers and French fries, are high in saturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat can lead to increased liver fat content, according to a 2021 review in Frontiers in Nutrition, which over time, could become cirrhosis. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it's recommended to keep saturated fat to less than 10% of your total daily calories, or about 13 grams.
But you don't have to give up your favorite fried foods completely. Try tasty, healthier alternatives, like these baked Parmesan Chicken Tenders or Crispy Oven-Baked Fries. If you really want the "fried" aspect without the saturated fat, you could also try air-frying the food that you would normally deep-fry.
Like fried foods, processed meats like salami, bacon and hot dogs also tend to be very high in saturated fat. And as we've already discussed, when more saturated fat than is recommended is eaten over time, it may lead to damage to your liver. A preliminary 2022 study published in Clinical Nutrition Research suggests that red and processed meats may increase one's odds of having non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
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. For example, a 2021 study in the Journal of Hepatology suggests that regular consumption of fructose-sweetened beverages increased the liver's production of fat in healthy, lean men.
The 2020-2025 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.
The Bottom Line
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) to a minimum.