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Why obesity can put you at risk for serious liver disease

It is a well-known fact that obesity can have an adverse effect on the heart, but it can also lead to a serious liver condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. “Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when fat builds up in the liver,” says Lance Stein, M.D., a transplant hepatologist at Piedmont Hospital. “It is becoming a growing health problem in the United States.

The disease occurs not only in adults, but is also recognized in children. We believe it is directly related to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and western countries.” While the disease typically has no symptoms, some people experience pain in the upper right abdomen, fatigue and weight loss. Those experiencing these symptoms should talk to their doctor – left untreated, the condition could cause scarring and even liver failure. For most, however, the disease causes a buildup of fat in the liver, but does not lead to any health complications.

Managing the disease with diet adjustments

A diet high in saturated fats can increase the risk of fatty liver disease. “This disease is a relatively new disease in the sense that it’s being recognized and diagnosed more commonly,” he explains. “It is seen mostly in western countries, including the United States, so we think there is some component of a high fat diet that may be related to this disease. There has also been some information that says changes in diet may lead to improvements in this disease.”

According to a study by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD), the Mediterranean diet could serve as a potential form of treatment for the condition. In this study, researchers examined 12 patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and put them on the Mediterranean diet for six weeks. “They compared them to patients who were on a standard heart healthy diet,” says Dr. Stein.

“Researchers found that patients who had switched to the Mediterranean diet showed improvements in amounts of liver fat and insulin sensitivity, suggesting that diet alone (independent of weight loss) may have a benefit in treating this disease.”

Treating nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

Unfortunately, treatments for this disease are limited mainly to lifestyle changes. “We recommend a diet and exercise program, with the goal of some weight loss,” he says. “Weight loss of as little as 10 pounds has been shown to reduce liver fat. “There have been some patients who have tried different types of medications, but the jury is still out about whether or not medications will help treat this disease,” Dr. Stein adds.

The bottom line is diet and exercise play a key role in preventing fatty liver disease and possibly even treating it.

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