A Parents’ Guide To Fatty Liver Disease in Children

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Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects nearly 10% of children in the US, aged from 2 to 19 years old. The condition has become more common in children over recent decades, partly due to an increase in childhood obesity. Parents and families have an important role in not just spotting signs of fatty liver disease in their children, but in addressing lifestyle and dietary changes in their family to help reduce their child’s risk of developing the condition.

Fatty Liver Disease In Children

Fatty liver disease can be simple fatty liver disease where a child has accumulated fat in the liver but has no cell damage or inflammation. Alternatively, it could be NASH or NAFLD, where a child’s liver causes inflammation and cell damage. This can become a serious health condition that results in liver cancer or cirrhosis. While experts don’t entirely understand why some children develop fatty liver disease, they do know it’s more common in children who have certain conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and pre-diabetes, high lipid disorders, insulin resistance, hepatitis C and those who have experienced sudden weight loss.

Risk Factors For Children

Studies have found that children as young as three with a bigger waist circumference had higher levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT), which is a marker for liver damage, by the time they were eight years old. Those children with greater increases in waist circumference also had higher ALT levels in mid-childhood. This highlights the importance of acting early in childhood to prevent excess weight gain and subsequent liver inflammation. Fatty liver disease is also linked to high blood pressure, diabetes and pre-diabetes, insulin resistance and high cholesterol. Family history can also be a factor in a child’s risk of developing fatty liver disease.

Signs And Symptoms Of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Both NAFLD and NASH often has no symptoms. For many children, the only symptoms might be fatigue, constipation, nausea, loss of appetite or discomfort in the upper right abdomen. It might also come to a doctor’s attention through abnormal blood tests results during a routine check-up. During an examination, a doctor may identify obesity, enlarged liver, signs of insulin resistance or dark discoloration on the back of the armpits or neck, which can point to fatty liver disease.

Lifestyle Change Is Best Treatment

There is no specific medication to treat NASH or NAFLD. A healthy diet and regular physical activity, however, are the only effective way to reverse the effects of fatty liver disease. If a child is overweight, fatty liver disease is treated with gradual weight loss of around one pound a week. Losing just 10% of their body weight can help a child overcome liver disease. This should happen through exercise combined with healthy changes to the child’s diet. Ensure that your child’s nutrition Is balanced and includes breakfast every day. Try to limit sweetened beverages, while focusing on incorporating lean meats, fish, poultry, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  When it comes to exercise, ideally you should aim for your child to exercise between three and 5 times a week for at least 30 minutes.

While non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a serious childhood condition, parents and families play a key role in helping their children avoid developing the condition or reversing the effects. A good nutritious diet and regular exercise will help ensure your child can enjoy a healthy and worry-free childhood. 

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