When there is a buildup of too much fat inside the cells of the liver, it creates a condition called hepatic steatosis, generally known as fatty liver disease. The excess fat within the cells makes it harder for the liver to function, slowing metabolism as well as the natural filtering of bodily toxins. There are two main types of fatty liver disease: alcohol-related fatty liver disease (AFLD) and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Because these conditions have “alcohol” and “fat” in the name, people often wonder if it’s safe to drink any alcohol or eat any fat after a diagnosis of fatty liver disease. Here’s what research and nutrition experts say on the matter.
People with fatty liver disease should still eat fat
It is natural to think that you should eat less fat if you’ve been diagnosed with fatty liver disease. But the type of fat you eat matters far more than the amount. Not only is fat helpful, but it’s also a necessary dietary component for people with fatty liver, since the liver is compromised and doesn’t process fat as efficiently as someone without fatty liver.
When it comes to dietary fat, the most important thing for people with fatty liver disease to do is replace unhealthful fats (highly processed oils and trans fats) with healthful whole-food sources of fat.
Unhealthful fats to avoid with fatty liver disease
Trans fats (or trans fatty acids)
This type of fat is strongly associated with increased liver inflammation, plus higher plasma triglycerides and cholesterol. Trans fats exist mostly in packaged baked goods, some margarine and vegetable shortenings, some microwave popcorns, fried fast food, non-dairy creamers, and refrigerated doughs and biscuits. Note: If a product contains “partially hydrogenated oil” that’s a good indication it has trans fats.
Highly processed oils
Processed oils, especially those that have been chemically extracted and which have a high omega-6 fatty acid profile, have been linked to increased inflammation and poor health outcomes. Avoid generic vegetable cooking oils, as well as soybean oil and corn oil.
Good fats to eat when you have fatty liver disease
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a good source of healthy fats, fiber, vitamin E, magnesium and other minerals. The best choices for people with fatty liver disease are almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
Avocados and avocado oil
These are top fat choices for people with fatty liver disease. The whole fruit is a great source of oleic acid (a good fat that has been connected to decreased inflammation), as well as potassium and fiber. Avocado oil contains the same healthful fats as a whole avocado and is good for cooking at higher heat.
Coconut and coconut oil
Though high in saturated fat, coconut and coconut oil are mostly made up of medium-chain fatty acids, which are unique and metabolized differently. Some studies have connected coconuts to reducing appetite and boosting metabolism.
Fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring are a top source of good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve liver function and reduce blood lipids in people with NAFLD.
Look for grass-fed beef as it has a more beneficial fatty acid profile than corn-fed beef.
A nutrient-dense food with beneficial fats, whole eggs – when enjoyed in moderation – are healthy and safe for people with fatty liver disease. Studies show that people who eat eggs three times or fewer per week do not have an increased risk of fatty liver.
Olives and olive oil
Both are a great choice for better health. As a cooking and flavoring oil, olive oil is a preferred choice due to its nature of being less processed and a good source of monounsaturated fats. Some studies show the oil in olives can help reduce liver enzymes that lead to liver disease.
Limiting alcohol with all types of fatty liver disease
About 5% of people in the U.S. have alcohol-related fatty liver disease, meaning that the accumulation of fat in liver cells results from excessive alcohol drinking. In addition to eating well, getting the support to quit drinking alcohol is an important treatment for people with alcoholic fatty liver disease. If alcohol consumption continues, a life-threatening condition called cirrhosis can develop. It’s estimated that 10% to 15% of alcoholics with AFLD will develop cirrhosis.
But what about people who have NAFLD? Here is where the amount matters greatly. The best defense is to remove alcohol completely whenever liver health is compromised. If consumed as part of an overall healthful lifestyle, however, an occasional drink of alcohol will not compromise the liver of someone with NAFLD. Some studies show that light consumption of alcohol can be well tolerated by people with NAFLD, especially those who have simple fatty liver instead of the more serious type of NAFLD called NASH (or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis). Light alcohol consumption is defined by the CDC as three drinks or fewer per week. One drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.
Read more about How to Eat Well for Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. You might also be interested in Can You Eat Fruit with Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)?