When discussing our health, the liver is often overlooked compared to more glamorous organs like the heart and brain. We focus on foods for heart and brain health to help us stay sharp as we age. When we think of the liver, we may think it is enough to simply limit how much alcohol we drink. It is true that alcohol, when consumed in excess, can cause serious and sometimes irreversible harm to the liver. But what about the food we eat?
The liver is a workhorse organ with many important functions. It plays a crucial role in digestion, detoxification, and metabolism. Products on the market promising to “cleanse the body of toxins” are generally not recommended. Not only are these not regulated by the FDA, but we already have an organ that is doing the job of detoxifying substances that enter the body. The liver can do its job best when we take care of it with healthy lifestyle choices.
One liver condition directly impacted by lifestyle is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is caused by fat accumulating in the liver. For some people this fat does not cause problems or worsen over time. Others, however, can develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), meaning extra fat accumulates, along with inflammation. Over time, this chronic inflammation may cause scarring, and eventually may lead to cirrhosis or cancer. According to the NIH, an estimated 30-40% of Americans have NAFLD and 3-12% have NASH. Individuals who are overweight or obese, specifically in the midsection, and who have type 2 diabetes, are at higher risk.
The choices we make in our daily lives play a big role in preventing NAFLD/NASH, or reducing the damage if already diagnosed. To prevent liver disease, work on maintaining a healthy body weight. If diagnosed, work toward a gradual 5-10% weight loss. It may sound simple, however, anyone who has struggled with weight knows it is not easy. The MOVE! Weight Management Program is designed to help guide and support Veterans in their weight loss journey.
There is no one specific diet for NAFLD. Try incorporating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into your meal plan. Try filling half your plate with fruits or veggies! For visual inspiration, check out MyPlate or this healthy plate. Limit added sugars found in drinks, desserts, and many processed foods. Choose whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and healthy unsaturated fats to round out your diet.
Exercise is a positive lifestyle choice for so many reasons, including liver health. Adults should aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. There is no one-size-fits-all exercise, but walking is the most common. If you are new to exercise, try starting slow. Also, make sure you consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program. See what’s available at your local VA, as many offer yoga, tai chi, or other exercise classes.
You can contact your local VA dietitian if you want to create an individualized plan and see what programs are available to help you maintain a healthy liver!
Courtney Reynolds is an outpatient dietitian at the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center, providing nutrition education and counseling to Veterans to help them achieve their health goals. She enjoys getting to know her patients in the outpatient setting and has a particular interest in diabetes and weight management. As a Veteran herself, she finds it rewarding being able to work at the VA and to be able to give back to other Veterans.