THE PROBLEM: The liver experts don’t offer effective diet advice
Currently, the experts who treat liver disease (AASLD), recommend no specific diet for liver health. There are not enough well-designed clinical trials focused specifically on the liver to give the organ experts confidence to make official dietary recommendations. This creates a serious dilemma. As patients we don’t have that luxury. We must make choices. We must live every day making food decisions and hope that our diet is a healthy one even if the experts can’t help us. No wonder we see endless variety in dietary advice and “experts” of all persuasions.
THE GOAL: Design a diet strategy that minimizes the liver workload
The Fatty Liver Foundation recommends a diet high in oleic acid (omega 9) unsaturated fat (30%), primarily from extra virgin oil, low in saturated and trans fats (7%), with a omega 3 and 6 fatty acids approximately equal (8% each). Protein is about 20% of calories and carbohydrates are primarily in the form of fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and whole grains (27%). Simple carbs, such as sugars and refined grains, are minimized. The goal for salt intake is about 70% of the USDA recommendation. Processed foods and red and processed meats are avoided. (see this pdf for the research supporting this strategy)
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects approximately one third of adults in the United States and is the most common cause of chronic liver disease worldwide. About 20% of patients develop the more serious steatohepatitis (NASH) which is becoming epidemic as a result of the rising rates of obesity and metabolic disease. Emerging data suggest weight loss of greater than 10% of body weight is beneficial in resolving steatosis and reversing fibrosis due to NASH.
The liver disease specialists don’t have enough proof that they are willing to endorse a specific diet, so keep that in mind as you listen to the sales pitches. There are thousands of claims about food. Here we are trying to give you the most complete picture that we can, but just remember, if someone is selling you something, they have an agenda and real evidence is hard to get.
As patients where do we look for dietary guidance?
We understand the challenge for science to provide specific and verifiable data, but as patients we still have to live each day and we make decisions about our diet by making use of whatever information is available to us. We also must live within the cultural and food availability situations that we find ourselves.
It is very difficult to do effective random, blinded, controlled trials (RCTs) of the diets of humans. There are myriad ethical and cultural concerns with human experimentation and the human diet is vastly complex within different cultures and practices. In our role as the voice of the patient, we believe that a position of offering very limited guidance is inadequate so we are providing this information as a patient resource for those who seek to understand the components of diet and available research which we believe offers a coherent view from which to make decisions about diet. The goal of our lifestyle strategy is not to diet but to adopt habits that are fundamentally healthy long term and probably contribute to a healthier liver and a better life.
Making the best choices we can with the information we have
A lifestyle that is fundamentally healthy is built on a vast series of small choices made each day over a lifetime. It is a pattern of behavior based upon choices which are, on average, neutral to healthy while minimizing ingesting things that compromise function. There is no one size fits all solution. Human metabolism is quite robust and is able to accept a wide range of inputs and to use them to sustain bodily functions.
In our role as a supporter of people concerned about liver health, our goal is to support a lifestyle which minimizes the work that the liver must do to sustain our lives. Conceptually, when any of the parallel processes taking place within a liver cell is either oversupplied with or denied those dietary elements that it needs to maintain a stable response we have failed in that goal. In making decisions about food, the goal is stability of function, stability of supply, and minimizing toxins. A sick liver benefits from a strategy of making it do as little work as possible.
Talk to your doctor
All patients should discuss dietary strategies with their doctor. This information cannot substitute for guidance by your physician. This material provides research-based information that will help you better understand your doctor’s advice but cannot be relied upon for personal health decisions. Information is critical to help plan and implement a strategy to adopt lifestyle change but there is no single solution to decisions about diet and this information is therefore incomplete and may well be proven to be incorrect as research is performed in the future. This discussion provides information from a health perspective broadly which can inform choices about what constitutes a liver supportive diet. A broader benefit is that this approach provides a holistic regimen which benefits many co-morbid conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular health as well. In many ways, what is good for the liver is beneficial for the body as a whole.
It is important to remember that your doctor may have little nutrition education. We rely on them, but many are unprepared to really help us with diet decisions. Current medical education does not provide much focus on the issues of diet. This paper contains references to research which we have relied upon in developing it so you may be able to use it to engage your physician in the science argument about various aspects of diets. The material presented is not exhaustive or necessarily authoritative but is a coherent way to approach the lifestyle challenge.