Your liver is important, so take care of it!
There are some body parts you probably don’t think about on a regular basis. (When was the last time you wondered how your spleen was doing?) That is, until something went wrong. The liver is an organ that we often take for granted, but its importance cannot be underestimated.
“The liver produces bile, which is important for the digestion of fats. It also works to detoxify substances foreign to the body and stores fat-soluble vitamins, among other functions,” explains Dr. Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences at the University of Hawai’i.
Related: Here’s how to keep your liver healthy
Dietitian Lyndsay Hall, DR, points out that the liver is vital. “One of its main roles is to process and metabolize nutrients, hormones, and substances, such as drugs, that pass through our bloodstream to keep our bodies balanced and eliminate potential toxic effects” , she says. Hall adds that the liver also serves as a store of energy, otherwise known as glycogen (which is the stored form of glucose) and micronutrients.
Obviously, liver health is essential. That’s why it’s so concerning that the rise in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is on the rise; an estimated 25% of people in the United States suffer from this chronic liver disease. NAFLD occurs when there is a buildup of fat in liver cells that is not caused by alcohol.
How can you keep your liver healthy? Here, dietitians share the best and worst foods for liver health.
Related: The best foods for your liver, from summer berries to coffee and green tea
What is the worst food for liver health?
Dr. Banna and Hall claim that there is one category of foods that are really not good for liver health: ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar or sodium. This includes things like cookies, chips, sugary breakfast cereals, candies, hot dogs and fries.
“When we consume excess sugar, whether it’s refined carbohydrates, like white bread or candy and our body doesn’t need it at that time for energy, we store the sugar that stays as fat and that fat can be stored on the liver,” Hall says.
As for foods high in sodium, there is also a strong correlation between high sodium diets and NAFLD; people with a high sodium diet are up to 60% more likely to be diagnosed with NAFLD.
Both experts also say that foods high in saturated fat should be minimized, when eating with liver health in mind. Foods high in saturated fat include bacon, sausages, red meat, butter, baked goods and ice cream. “Some saturated fats are fine for the diet, but too much saturated fat can lead to fat accumulation in the liver,” says Dr. Banna.
Hall explains why the reason foods high in saturated fat should be minimized is that increased consumption of saturated fat is often associated with increased blood lipid levels, obesity and insulin resistance, all of which are conditions that can increase the risk of NAFLD. “The association between saturated fat consumption and these health conditions known to increase the risk of NAFLD is partly due to the creation of harmful ceramides [lipids]Hall says. “When saturated fat is consumed in excess, it can lead to the production of these ceramides, which are fat molecules that can have harmful effects, increasing the risk of diseases such as insulin resistance and type 1 diabetes. 2.”
Related: Could This Workout Protect Your Liver From the Effects of Alcohol? Weight of experts
What to eat instead to support liver health
Now that you know which foods are the worst for liver health, comes the question of what to eat instead. As you can probably guess, the same foods that are good for other parts of the body, including the brain, heart, and intestines, also support liver health. “Eating a balanced diet rich in plant foods is a good way to maintain liver health,” says Dr. Banna.
You do not know where to start ? She recommends focusing on fiber, a nutrient that Dr. Banna says the majority of Americans don’t get enough of and is found in foods including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Scientific studies have established a strong link between a high-fiber diet and improved liver health.
Unlike saturated fats, both experts say unsaturated fats contribute to liver health. “Because limiting saturated fat intake is beneficial for liver health, unsaturated fat intake is becoming increasingly important as our bodies require fat for metabolic processes,” says Hall. Foods with saturated fats include avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
Hall regularly recommends the Mediterranean diet to clients looking for a diet that promotes liver health. This way of eating emphasizes foods high in fiber and unsaturated fats as well as proteins that come mainly from plants and seafood.
It bears repeating that when you eat with liver health in mind, you end up supporting your whole body, including your brain, heart, and gut. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with NAFLD, it’s also important to know that it can be reversed. That’s how powerful dietary and lifestyle habits are. No one has to live with NAFLD. It is a disease that we can control. Quite stimulating, right?
Next, check out a list of 110 foods you can eat while following the Mediterranean diet.