Your doctor may recently have told you that you have fatty liver. Should you be worried? And precisely what is fatty liver?
Fatty liver disease—sometimes just called fatty liver and also known as hepatic steatosis—means that you have too much fat stored in the liver. Your liver naturally stores some fat. But when there is too much, it can cause problems over time.
In this article, we’ll address some of the most common questions surrounding what is fatty liver and what you can do to improve—or even reverse—it.
What is Fatty Liver and How Does it Progress?
Fatty liver disease is a condition that is caused by having too much fat build up in your liver. A normal percentage of fat in the liver is 5% or less. But when that percentage goes higher, you have fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver disease can progress through four stages:
- Simple fatty liver — You have a buildup of extra fat, but there is no inflammation or damage.
- Steatohepatitis — The liver tissue now has inflammation, which causes damage to the tissue.
- Fibrosis — At this point, the damaged tissue has formed scar tissue. Your liver can still mostly work normally.
- Cirrhosis — Scar tissue is extensive throughout the liver, which causes it not to work correctly. Cirrhosis can lead to further problems, such as cancer and liver failure.
Often, there are no symptoms in the early stages of fatty liver disease. You won’t know that you have fat buildup in your liver until it has progressed to later stages and you begin to have symptoms of cirrhosis.
What is Fatty Liver Disease Caused By?
It is difficult to give one answer saying what is fatty liver disease’s main cause.
That’s because fatty liver disease has two classifications. And while they are similar in how they affect you and your liver, they have different causes.
- Alcohol-induced fatty liver disease — This is a common condition and is caused by drinking too much alcohol. It can develop in anyone, even after just a few days of drinking excessively.
Heavy drinking causes fat to build up in the liver, but this buildup is reversible. By cutting out alcohol, your liver will return to a healthy state. Continued heavy drinking will cause liver disease to progress.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — Abbreviated as NAFLD, this liver disease is not caused by alcohol use. It can affect anyone, but doctors and researchers do not clearly understand the exact causes. Doctors do know that it often happens in patients with other metabolic problems.
Risk factors and likely causes of nonalcoholic fatty liver:
- Being obese or overweight
- Type 2 diabetes
- High cholesterol
- Metabolic syndrome
- A diet high in fructose (sugar)
Can Fatty Liver Be Reversed?
What is fatty liver disease’s best treatment, and can it be reversed?
Fatty liver disease cannot be cured with medicine. However, with lifestyle changes, you can manage fatty liver, and slow the progression or even reverse it. Our livers are the only organs that can regenerate. This means that when caught early enough, liver disease can be reversed.
- Lose Weight — The best thing to do for fatty liver disease is to lose weight. Losing just 5% of your body weight will begin to show improvements. Losing 10% of your body weight will show significant improvements in all areas of fatty liver disease.
- Exercise — Even if it doesn’t lead to weight loss, exercise considerably helps improve fatty liver disease. Try to have at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. For the greatest benefits, try to exercise 5 or more days per week.
- Manage Diabetes — 70% of people with type 2 diabetes also have fatty liver disease. By properly managing your diabetes, you reduce insulin resistance—which is a key factor in improving and reversing fatty liver disease.
- Limit Alcohol — Drinking alcohol is a known cause of fatty liver disease. Limiting the amount you drink, or stopping altogether, can help improve fat levels in your liver.
What is Fatty Liver Disease’s Response to Diet?
The typical Western diet is full of red meat, whole-fat dairy foods, soda, juice, processed meats, and fatty snack foods. It also tends to lack whole grains, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Animal proteins, trans fats, and sugar are all known to harm the liver.
However, a healthy, holistic diet rich in organic whole fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fats, and plant-based proteins and fiber can help improve and even reverse fatty liver disease.
The Best Diet to Improve Fatty Liver is the Mediterranean Diet
Several studies have shown that the Mediterranean (or a similar) diet can greatly improve fatty liver disease and even reverse it.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes:
- Plant-based foods over animal-based foods
- Fresh whole fruits, vegetables, and legumes
- Minimally processed whole grains
- Healthy omega-3 fats from fish, olive oil, seeds, and nuts
- Limiting or completely avoiding sugar and sweets, dairy, eggs, and red and processed meats
Following the Mediterranean diet—or a similar one—can not only improve your liver function but also improve insulin resistance and cholesterol levels. Even if you don’t lose weight, eating a healthy, holistic, plant-based diet has been shown to improve fatty liver substantially.
Don’t Forget to Stay Away from Sugar
Studies show that eating sugary foods might be a major contributor to fatty liver disease. Two types of sugar—sucrose and fructose—are especially harmful and can cause fat to build up in your liver.
Consuming even moderate amounts of fructose (fruit sugar) or sucrose (table sugar) doubles the amount of fat the liver produces, which can lead to fatty liver disease. Watch out for fruit juices, soda, and other sweetened beverages as sneaky sources of sugar.
What is Fatty Liver? Now You Know.
Coming from the doctor with a diagnosis of fatty liver can cause your thoughts to be swirling with questions. What is fatty liver? How is it treated? Can it be reversed?
We hope that we’ve helped to put your mind at ease with some answers to the most common questions about fatty liver disease.
If you’re looking for more advice on how to lead a holistic lifestyle and improve your health, check out our latest article on how going vegan can improve heart disease.