Your liver is important—so take care of it!
There are some parts of the body you likely don’t think about on a regular basis. (When was the last time you wondered how your spleen was doing?) That is, until something goes wrong. The liver is one organ that we often take for granted, but its importance can’t be underestimated.
“The liver produces bile, which is important for fat digestion. It also works to detoxify substances that are foreign to the body and stores fat-soluble vitamins, among other functions,” says Dr. Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences at the University of Hawai’i.
Registered dietitian Lyndsay Hall, RD, emphasizes that the liver is vital. “One of its main roles is to process and metabolize the nutrients, hormones, and substances—such as medication—that pass through our blood in order to maintain balance in our bodies and eliminate potential toxic effects,” she says. Hall adds that the liver also serves as a reserve of energy, otherwise known as glycogen (which is the stored form of glucose) and micronutrients.
Clearly, liver health is key. This is why it’s so concerning that the rise of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is on the rise; an estimated 25 percent of people in the U.S. have this chronic liver condition. NAFLD occurs when there is a build-up 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.
What Is the Worst Food for Liver Health?
Both Dr. Banna and Hall say that there is one category of food that is truly not good for liver health: ultra-processed foods high in sugar or sodium. This includes things like cookies, chips, sugary breakfast cereals, candy, hot dogs and French fries.
“When we consume sugar in excess, whether it be from refined carbohydrates, like white bread, or candy and our bodies do not require it at that time for energy, we will store whatever sugar is left in the form of fat and this fat can be stored on the liver,” Hall says.
As for foods high in sodium, there is also a strong correlation between diets high in sodium and NAFLD; people with a high-sodium diet are as much as 60 percent 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, sausage, red meat, butter, baked goods, and ice cream. “Some saturated fat is fine in the diet, but saturated fat in excess may lead to accumulation of fat in the liver,” Dr. Banna says.
Hall explains why the reason why foods high in saturated fat should be minimized is that increased intake 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 the consumption of saturated fat and these health conditions that are known to increase risk of NAFLD is in part due to the creation of damaging ceramides [lipids],” Hall says. “When saturated fat is consumed in excess, it can result in the production of these ceramides, which are fat molecules that can have harmful effects, increasing the risk of conditions like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.”
What To Eat Instead To Support Liver Health
Now that you know what the worst foods for liver health are comes the question of what to eat instead. As you can likely guess, the same foods that are good for other parts of the body, including the brain, heart and gut, support liver health too. “Consuming a balanced diet that is rich in plant-sourced foods is a good way to maintain liver health,” Dr. Banna says.
Not sure 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 found a strong connection between a high-fiber diet and improving liver health.
Unlike saturated fat, both experts say that unsaturated fat helps support liver health. “Because it is beneficial to limit consumption of saturated fat for the sake of liver health, intake of unsaturated fat becomes increasingly important, as our bodies do require some fat for metabolic processes,” Hall says. Foods with saturated fat include avocado, olive oil, and nuts and seeds.
Hall routinely recommends the Mediterranean diet to clients who are looking for an eating plan that supports liver health. This way of eating emphasizes foods rich in both fiber and unsaturated fat as well as protein sourced primarily from plants and seafood.
It bears repeating that when you eat with liver health in mind, you end up supporting your entire body, including your brain, heart, and gut. If you have already 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. This is one disease that we can control. Pretty empowering, right?