The body stores fat for energy and insulation in many areas, including the liver. If the fat content in the liver is too high, it may be a sign of fatty liver disease. Dietary changes are the first-line treatment for this condition.
There are two main types of fatty liver disease: alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) and nonalcohol-related fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Pregnant people can also develop a form of fatty liver disease known as acute fatty liver of pregnancy. This rare complication can occur in the third trimester or early postpartum period.
Fatty liver disease damages the liver, preventing it from removing toxins from the blood and producing bile for the digestive system. When the liver cannot perform these tasks effectively, a person is at risk of developing other problems throughout their body.
According to the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), lifestyle factors including diet and exercise are key for managing NAFLD. A balanced diet can also help to
In this article, we suggest several foods to include in a diet for fatty liver disease and other foods to avoid.
Some people choose to follow specific diet plans, such as the Mediterranean diet. This diet is a particularly good choice for people with NAFLD because it minimizes processed food, added sugar, and saturated fatty acids.
Depending on the type of fatty liver disease a person has, a dietitian can help create a customized diet plan that is right for their tastes, symptoms, and health status.
Some specific foods that may be especially helpful for people with fatty liver disease include:
Garlic is a staple in many diets, and it may provide benefits for people with fatty liver disease. A
Omega-3 fatty acids
Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
Drinking coffee is a morning ritual for many people. However, it may provide benefits beyond a burst of energy for people with fatty liver disease.
Eating a variety of whole vegetables is helpful for people with fatty liver disease, and broccoli is one vegetable that a person with fatty liver disease should seriously consider including in their diet.
A 2016 animal study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that the long-term consumption of broccoli helped prevent the buildup of fat in murine livers.
Researchers still need to conduct further studies involving humans. However, early research into the effect of broccoli consumption on the development of fatty liver disease looks promising.
Using tea for medicinal purposes is a practice that goes back thousands of years.
While all tree nuts are a great addition to any diet plan, walnuts are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids and may provide benefits for people with fatty liver disease.
Although further research is needed, a 2019 study in the journal
Soy or whey protein
The results of one study in the review showed that liver fat decreased by 20% in women with obesity who ate 60 grams (g) of whey protein every day for 4 weeks.
Soy protein contains antioxidants called isoflavones that help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce fat in the body.
Adding healthful foods to the diet is one way to manage fatty liver disease. However, it is just as important for people with this condition to avoid or limit their intake of certain other foods.
Sugar and added sugars
According to the AGA’s Clinical Practice Update, people with fatty liver disease, in particular NAFLD, should avoid or limit added sugars. These may contribute to high blood sugar levels and increase fat in the liver.
Manufacturers often add sugar to candy, ice cream, and sweetened beverages such as soda and fruit drinks. Added sugars also feature in packaged foods, baked goods, and even store-bought coffee and tea.
Avoiding other sugars, such as fructose and corn syrup can also help minimize fat in the liver.
Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the most common causes of acute and chronic liver disease in the United States. Alcohol affects the liver, contributing to fatty liver disease and other conditions, such as cirrhosis.
A person with fatty liver disease should try to reduce their alcohol intake or remove it from their diet altogether.
Processed and refined grains are present in white bread, white pasta, and white rice. Producers remove the fiber from these highly processed grains, which can raise blood sugar as the body breaks them down.
People can replace refined grains with potatoes, legumes, or whole wheat and whole grain alternatives.
Fried or salty foods
Too much fried or salty food is likely to increase calorie intake and can lead to a person developing obesity, a common cause of fatty liver disease.
Adding extra spices and herbs to a meal is a great way to flavor foods without adding salt. People can also usually bake or steam foods instead of frying them.
Beef, pork, and deli meats are all high in saturated fats. The AGA suggests that a person with fatty liver disease try to avoid these foods as much as possible.
Lean meats, fish, tofu, or tempeh make suitable substitutes. However, wild, oily fish may be the best choice, as it also provides omega-3 fatty acids.
Implementing lifestyle changes can help people with fatty liver disease reduce and manage their symptoms.
Examples of helpful changes include:
Adjusting calorie intake
For people with NAFLD, weight loss is the most important strategy. A 5% decrease in body weight can decrease the amount of fat in a person’s liver.
According to the AGA, a person with NAFLD usually has to either eat about 1,200–1,500 calories a day or reduce their daily intake by 500–1000 calories to see results. This will depend on the person’s body mass.
Since malnutrition is a concern for people with ARLD, research suggests that the optimal caloric intake for people with this condition is about
Eating smaller meals more frequently with shorter intervals in between can improve food absorption.
Being physically active
Regular exercise is important for everyone. However, it provides extra benefits for people with fatty liver disease in terms of managing symptoms.
The AGA recommends at least 150–300 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75–150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week for people with NAFLD.
Tips for becoming more active include:
- using a standing workstation
- stretching every morning
- walking on a treadmill while watching television
- taking the stairs instead of an elevator
These are all simple ways to increase activity levels throughout the day without having to make time for a full workout.
If diet and exercise are not having the desired effect on a person’s symptoms of fatty liver disease, they may consider speaking with a doctor. The doctor might refer the person to a nutritionist to help them create a diet plan.
People with NAFLD can have coexisting conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure. People with both types of fatty liver disease may also develop sarcopenia, where people lose muscle mass. It is a good idea for a doctor to check a person with fatty liver disease for other health conditions.
Fatty liver disease decreases liver function. Obesity is a common risk factor for developing NAFLD.
Many people with fatty liver disease find they can reach a moderate weight and comfortably manage their symptoms.