It’s the most common form of liver disease in United States and other developed countries. And it’s not related to alcohol consumption. That’s why it’s called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Just as its name implies, NAFLD is an abnormal buildup of fat in the liver. If left untreated, the liver becomes more and more inflamed and can eventually progress to irreversible liver damage called cirrhosis.
According to a recent article by registered dietitian Jill Weisenberger in Food & Nutrition magazine for nutrition professionals, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease appears more in people who are obese and/or have type 2 diabetes. NAFLD is more common if a person has one or more characteristics of a condition called metabolic syndrome: excess inches around the abdomen, high blood sugars, elevated blood pressure and blood triglycerides, and low levels of HDL “good” cholesterol.
Surprisingly (or maybe it shouldn’t be), the main treatment for NAFLD involves lifestyle changes to help the liver heal itself. That includes a diet that provides optimal nutrients and limited calories to lose weight.
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Slow and steady weight loss is best, nutrition experts say. Diets that cause a rapid loss of weight (more than 3.5 pounds a week) force large amounts of fatty acids through the liver and can worsen NAFLD.
Because non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is related to metabolic syndrome, diets that improve that condition also are effective treatments for NAFLD. One good example is the Mediterranean-style diet, which features olive oil, nuts, fish, fruit, veggies and whole grains; this style of eating has been shown to lower fat levels in the liver.
What about wine and other types of alcohol? Even though NAFLD is not related to alcohol consumption, excess booze might aggravate a fatty liver. For this reason, many experts, including the American Liver Foundation, advise those with NAFLD to completely avoid alcoholic beverages.
Coffee and tea are generally OK for people with NAFLD.
Physical activity is another effective treatment for NAFLD. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate “huff and puff” exercise combined with a couple of strength training sessions a week, experts say.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.