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General Health

Do Your Genes Influence Your Odds of Developing Fatty Liver Disease?

You already know that what you eat contributes to your risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. But now, research suggests that some of that risk might be completely out of your control.

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Are you keeping your liver health in check? The number of individuals with fatty liver disease – specifically, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – is on the rise. But over time, the buildup of fat and chronic inflammation this condition can cause may ultimately damage your liver. And one of the biggest contributing factors is your diet.

However, while the foods you eat can directly affect your odds of developing fatty liver disease, diet isn’t the only culprit. According to new research, your genes may also play a role. If you have a certain genetic makeup, you may be more likely to wind up with fatty liver disease, a detail that can hamper your overall health.

How do you know if you might be at an increased risk of liver problems? Here’s what scientists have to say about how genes can alter your odds for fatty liver disease. 

Certain genetic changes can make you more likely to develop fatty liver disease

While it’s known that diet can lead to fatty liver disease factors like liver inflammation, obesity and fat buildup in the liver and other areas of the body, scientists haven’t exactly known why those who appear to have few contributing factors still develop the disease. Lean individuals and those who are already at a healthy weight – and even people who follow a healthy diet – can still be diagnosed with fatty liver.

So, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany set out to examine what underlying genetic factors might play a role in these somewhat unexpected situations. They used mice as an animal model and incorporated data, tissues and cultures from humans. Through this work, the researchers were able to identify that alterations in two key genes appeared to directly affect the buildup of fat in the liver.

Genes RNF43 and ZNRF3, which have previously been linked to liver cancer, can potentially increase the risk for fatty liver disease when mutated. Researchers found that, when these two genes alone were mutated, they essentially “turned on” the liver’s ability to store lipids (or fat). They can essentially cause the liver’s normal fat metabolism process to malfunction, which leads to a lack of control over lipids. And it allows those lipids to accumulate in the liver, multiplying uncontrollably – and ultimately, increasing the risk for and progression of fatty liver disease.

So, to put it simply, when these two key genes have mutations, they can make your liver more likely to build up fat and put you at a heightened risk for fatty liver disease. And this can happen even if you’re already eating a healthy diet and keeping your liver’s health in mind. 

Taking action now can help you prevent – or even reverse – the potential damage

While you can’t exactly do anything to alter your genetic makeup or change mutations that may be present, there are steps you can take to better your liver health. Even if you’re potentially at an increased risk of developing fatty liver disease, you may be able to adjust your diet and lifestyle now to lower your overall risk, or even potentially reverse the effects of early-stage chronic liver problems.

As one of the study’s researchers, Meritex Huch, told Science Daily, “With the alarming increase in the consumption of fat and sugar worldwide, recognizing those individuals already predisposed because of bearing those genetic mutations might be important for therapeutic intervention and management of the disease, especially at very early stages or even before the disease is initiated.”

Whether or not you have the specific genetic mutations that may predispose you to fatty liver disease, avoiding the foods and lifestyle habits that can make you more likely to develop this condition is a smart step. Cutting back on your sugar consumption and saturated fat intake are two key actions that may help. Additionally, you can adopt a liver-friendly diet that highlights foods that fuel your liver with the nutrients it needs – try making smart, healthy swaps or cooking recipes that feature good-for-your-liver ingredients. And you can also follow our guide to eating well for fatty liver disease, which will teach you what your liver needs most.

Show Your Liver Some Love: A Clean Eating Webinar

Join Clean Eating dietitians Tiffani Bachus and Erin Macdonald for an exclusive webinar all about liver health and wellness.