It’s not only alcoholics who incur liver damage – being overweight could permanently damage your liver and increases your liver cancer risk…

With heart disease and diabetes having reached almost epidemic proportions, people are more aware than ever about the consequences of being overweight – but did you know that a diet high in fat, or being overweight, can also permanently damage your liver?

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is caused by a build-up of fat in the liver.

“NAFLD, or fatty liver, may cause your liver to be enlarged, but most people with fatty liver probably won’t notice many symptoms,” says Dr Jacques Badenhorst, a gastroenterologist based at the Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital.

“However, a large portion of people will go on to develop non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), an aggressive form of fatty liver disease that is much more serious and can lead to cell damage, liver fibrosis or cirrhosis, and liver cancer.”

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Even if you don’t touch a drop of alcohol, the food and lifestyle choices you make can lead to liver inflammation, cirrhosis and possibly even liver cancer,” warns Dr Badenhorst.

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Experts don’t know exactly why some people accumulate fat in the liver while others do not.

Similarly, there is limited understanding of why some fatty livers develop inflammation that progresses to cirrhosis.

Dr Badenhorst advises that NAFLD and NASH are both linked to the following:

  • Overweight or obesity
  • Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome
  • High blood sugar (hyperglycaemia), indicating pre-diabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High levels of fats, particularly triglycerides, in the blood
  • High cholesterol
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
  • Underactive pituitary gland (hypopituitarism)

“These health problems appear to promote the deposit of fat in the liver. For some people, this excess fat acts as a toxin to liver cells, causing liver inflammation and NASH, which may lead to a build up of scar tissue in the liver.”

What are the symptoms?

According to Dr Badenhorst, up to a quarter of the population suffer from fatty liver disease yet the disease has few symptoms and it’s tough to diagnose.

“Some patients have elevated liver enzymes. Imaging studies of the liver, such as ultrasound or MRI may show fatty liver, and special techniques may indicate fibrosis, cirrhosis and cancer risk.”

“The first symptoms of liver damage are often jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), feeling tired and weak, and loss of appetite. Other symptoms include accumulation of fluid within the abdomen, swollen legs and ankles, itchy skin, a tendency to bruise and bleed easily, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.”

Take steps to reduce your risk

There is no medication that can prevent or reverse fatty liver disease. It comes down to making healthy lifestyle choices that reduce your overall risk for the disease.

You can take the following steps to reduce your risk of developing liver disease and liver cancer:

  • Maintain a healthy weight – Getting to and staying a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk for developing fatty liver.
  • Eat a healthy, plant-based diet – Fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Fill the remaining third with lean protein. Limit the amount of high-fat and high-sugar foods you eat.
  • Stay physically active – Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.

“You can take additional steps to reduce your risk for liver disease and improve your overall health – such as quitting smoking and limit alcohol use,” says Dr Badenhorst. “There are no screening recommendations for NAFLD or NASH. If you have metabolic syndrome or one of the conditions associated with higher risk, talk to you doctor.”

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