Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver, causing inflammation and fibrosis. Sometimes called hep C or HCV, it is carried by the blood and other bodily fluids.
Everything a person eats or drinks passes through the liver and is converted into energy or chemicals that allow the body to function normally.
An untreated hepatitis C infection can damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis, or scarring. If hepatitis causes liver damage, a person may need to modify their diet.
Hepatitis C that affects a person’s diet will usually fall into one of the following categories:
- Interferon treatment: Side effects of this kind of treatment can include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and sore mouth and throat.
- Cirrhosis: People with cirrhosis often have a loss of appetite and energy. They can become poorly nourished and may need to limit salt in their diet.
- Other medical conditions: Other medical conditions alongside hepatitis C can mean a change in diet. These conditions include high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease.
In most cases of hepatitis C, a special diet is not necessary. However, a poor diet combined with hepatitis C can lead to further liver damage.
Being overweight can lead to a fatty liver. When combined with hepatitis C, this can result in cirrhosis.
Drinking alcohol is another factor that can increase damage to the liver, so those with hepatitis C are advised to stop drinking alcohol or limit their intake.
Furthermore, people with hepatitis C are at an increased risk of developing diabetes. This means that a healthful diet is even more crucial for reducing body fat and controlling blood sugar.
A healthful diet can improve the liver health of a person with hepatitis C and reduce the chance of developing cirrhosis. Eating well helps keep the immune system strong to fight off illness.
While most people with hepatitis C do not require a special diet, there are certain foods people can eat to maintain good liver health.
Fruit and vegetables
A healthful and balanced diet should include plenty of fruit and vegetables. These food groups are full of necessary vitamins and minerals that enable the liver to function properly.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are ideal, but they can also be frozen or canned. People should aim to consume at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Leafy green vegetables can lessen fatty acid composition in the liver, so they are particularly beneficial to people with hepatitis C. Good examples include kale, spinach, and cabbage.
Leafy green vegetables are sources of iron, which may be harmful to those with hepatitis C when consumed in excess. While it is unlikely a person would eat enough leafy greens to cause an iron overload, people with liver damage may wish to monitor their intake. A doctor or dietitian can help a person determine the right amount for them.
Getting adequate amounts of protein is important, as it provides energy and can keep a person feeling full. Replacing a portion of simple carbohydrates with protein is a good way to reduce the risk of conditions such as diabetes.
Good sources of protein include:
- nuts and seeds
Dairy products also provide protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Low-fat or fat-free versions of dairy are the best choices for people with hepatitis C. People should limit dairy products with added sugar.
Cereals, breads, and grains are all examples of complex carbohydrates and are packed with B vitamins and minerals, as well as zinc and fiber.
Complex carbohydrates include:
- brown rice
- whole oats
- whole rye
- whole wheat
- wild rice
There are also things that people with hepatitis C should try to avoid or limit in their diet due to the effects they may have on the liver.
Small amounts of fat and oils are important to store energy, protect body tissues, and transport vitamins round the blood.
However, fat can also cause abnormalities, such as a fatty buildup in the liver, leading to cirrhosis.
People with hepatitis C should try to consume unsaturated fats, such as those in nuts and seeds, olive oil, and fish oils.
It is best to limit saturated fats, such as those found in meat, full-fat dairy products, fast food, and cookies.
Monitoring salt intake is important for people with hepatitis C. For people with cirrhosis in particular, reducing sodium is vital for limiting the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, which is known as ascites.
To reduce salt intake, a person should avoid eating processed or packaged foods.
There is believed to be a link between hepatitis C and blood sugar levels, which can increase the risk of developing diabetes.
The liver helps regulate blood sugar levels. Foods high in sugar, such as pastries, desserts, and candy, are high in calories but have little to no nutritional value, and can cause spikes in blood sugar.
People who have chronic hepatitis C have problems releasing iron. Excess iron can cause an overload in the blood and organs.
Iron is important for the body to function so should not be eliminated entirely. Reducing the intake of iron-rich foods, such as red meat, liver, and iron-fortified cereals may be advisable.
The best way for people to get vitamins and minerals is through food, but supplements can be helpful for someone with hepatitis C, especially if they have a loss of appetite.
People should speak to a doctor before taking any supplements, as they may interact with other medications and can be dangerous if taken in high doses.
Most people with hepatitis C will not have to follow a special diet unless their liver is badly damaged. However, a healthful diet can help manage hepatitis C and prevent complications and related conditions from developing.
It is especially important to avoid fatty foods and alcohol if a person is worried about their liver health. A doctor or dietitian can help an individual develop a personalized diet plan that works for them.