At the recently-concluded The Liver Meeting, an annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Boston, a study presented claimed that the burden of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) would continue to steadily increase among US adults. The number would increase from 27.8% to 34.3%, the study stated. Dr. Phuc Le, MD from from the Cleveland Clinic and study lead said, “With diabetes and obesity rates on the rise, metabolic dysfunction-associated steatotic liver disease is expected to become the leading reason for liver transplants in the United States.”
While there may not be any similar figures in the Indian context, one reads regular reports of NAFLD on the rise among our population, as well. However, before we get to discussing solutions, let us begin by understanding what fatty liver disease is and how it affects us.
Fatty liver disease, scientifically known as hepatic steatosis, occurs when an excess of fat builds up in the liver, a crucial organ responsible for processing nutrients and purifying harmful substances from the bloodstream. While a small amount of fat in the liver is normal, it becomes problematic when it reaches 5-10% of the liver's weight, potentially causing liver inflammation, scarring, and even liver failure. There are two main types of fatty liver diseases.
Alcohol-induced Fatty Liver Disease:
This type arises due to regular alcohol consumption. Excessive drinking leads to the accumulation of fat inside liver cells, impairing the liver's function. It's worth noting that fatty liver disease can affect even individuals who consume minimal alcohol. Fortunately, alcoholic fatty liver disease is preventable and often improves when alcohol intake is stopped.
Non-Alcohol Related Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD):
NAFLD, also known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, affects individuals who consume little to no alcohol. In this condition, an excessive amount of fat accumulates in the liver, commonly observed in people who are overweight or obese. When fat is present in the liver without causing damage, it's termed nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). If fat coexists with inflammation and liver cell damage, the condition is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
How does fatty liver disease affect us?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition that can lead to severe complications such as liver failure and liver cancer. It is important to note here that it often develops silently, without any symptoms. Many individuals with NAFLD have excess fat in their liver without experiencing noticeable differences. In some cases, it can progress to a more severe condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), causing inflammation and damage to the liver.
In the early stages, NAFLD rarely exhibits signs, making diagnosis difficult until significant liver damage has occurred. In severe cases, some individuals might develop end-stage cirrhosis, significantly increasing the risk of liver failure and cancer. Due to its often asymptomatic nature, regular medical check-ups and lifestyle changes are crucial to prevent the disease from worsening and causing severe complications.
How do our dietary choices impact liver health?
Consuming animal-based foods like meat, eggs and dairy products introduces high levels of saturated fat into our bodies. This saturated fat tends to accumulate around vital organs, including the liver. Moreover, indulging in ultra-processed foods such as deep-fried items, salty snacks, and sugary treats often results in excessive calorie intake. Over time, this overconsumption can lead to obesity, a significant factor in the progression of fatty liver disease.
Additionally, refined carbohydrates found in foods like white bread, white pasta and white rice lack essential fiber due to extensive processing. When these refined carbs are broken down in the body, they cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. This sudden increase can contribute to the onset of fatty liver diseases and even more severe conditions like cirrhosis. Now, while it sounds dire, there are solutions to control and prevent the condition, starting with our diet.
Nourish your liver through whole food plant-based eating
Eating whole plant-based foods is excellent for our liver. These foods come directly from nature and aren't processed much. They include unrefined grains, lentils, dates, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. When we eat these whole plant-based foods, our liver gets complex carbohydrates, high fiber and low fats. They are great for the liver because they don't have any unhealthy additives.
Choosing natural, unprocessed plant-based foods straight from the farm gives us the most benefits. Plant-based foods don't just give us essential nutrients; they also contain powerful antioxidants that act like shields for our liver. They protect our liver from harmful stress. These plant-based foods also help good bacteria grow in our gut, making our liver enzymes work better.
Adopt a holistic approach
Preventing fatty liver disease encompasses more than just dietary modifications. Regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption are equally vital components of liver care. Exercise not only aids in weight management but also improves insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of NAFLD. Moreover, embracing stress-reducing practices like yoga and meditation can have a positive impact on liver health, as stress hormones can exacerbate liver inflammation.
In the journey towards a healthier liver, knowledge and mindful choices are our guiding stars. Understanding the detrimental impact of saturated and trans fats, as well as the significance of whole food plant-based foods, empowers us to make informed dietary decisions. By incorporating a variety of colourful, nutrient-rich plant foods and engaging in regular physical activity, we can fortify our liver’s resilience. Remember, our liver is not just an organ – it’s a lifeline. Nurturing it with care and nourishment is the key to a long, vibrant life.
Nidhi Nahata is the founder of India's first whole food plant based resto cafe – Justbe, in Bengaluru.