The liver has many functions.
Your liver is the largest solid organ in the body. You may have heard that the liver helps remove substances such as alcohol from the body. Yet there’s a lot more going on in the liver, which performs more than 500 functions for your body.
The liver’s functions include:
— Filtering your blood. During this filtering, the liver removes toxins, such as alcohol, chemicals or drugs.
— Processing glucose, or blood sugar. The liver removes excess blood sugar and can turn it into glycogen, which is the stored form of glucose. If your body needs it, it can convert that glycogen back into glucose.
— Producing bile, which helps with digestion.
The liver does practically everything but breathe for the body, jokes registered dietitian and nutritionist Jana Mowrer, owner of HealthWins Coaching and Consulting in Fresno, California. Still, it’s not far from the truth.
Keeping the liver healthy
With the liver being such an important organ, it makes sense to try and eat foods that will keep the liver healthy and avoid foods or drinks that impede its ability to work properly. This is true both if you’re generally healthy and if you have some forms of liver disease, such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is when fat builds up in your liver.
A healthy, liver-friendly diet can help control or reduce the rate of diseases like NAFLD, says gastroenterologist Dr. Vishal Gupta of Gastroenterology of Greater Orlando in Orlando. The number of people with NAFLD is growing rapidly across the U.S., and it’s often associated with being overweight or obese. It’s possible with NAFLD to develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which is a more aggressive form of liver disease that can advance to cirrhosis and liver failure.
“If you already have liver problems, your diet is one of the first things you’ll have to change,” says certified trainer and registered dietitian Jamie Hickey, founder of Truism Fitness in Philadelphia. “As your liver disease progresses, it won’t be able to filter out waste and any toxins in your diet.”
Here are seven foods and drinks for better liver health.
Coffee helps the liver by blocking the production of fat and collagen, which are two common indications of chronic liver disease, Hickey says. Plus, coffee has an age-fighting antioxidant called glutathione. “Free radicals, which cause cell damage, are killed by antioxidants,” he says.
The benefits of coffee appear strongest when consuming three to four cups of coffee a day. Try to consume it without cream and sugar, which can add extra calories and fat. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about the amount of caffeine in coffee. The benefits for the liver are associated with caffeinated coffee, not decaf.
Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries — all berries can improve your liver health, Mowrer says. That’s because they are full of antioxidants, which include vitamin C, and berries have a high water content. All of those qualities can contribute to a strong liver.
Berries also have polyphenols, which are antioxidants that can fight against NAFLD. Next time you’re looking for a sweet treat, reach for a cup of berries instead of a sugar-laden dessert.
As you plan your dinners, keep fatty fish like salmon or albacore tuna in mind. That’s because fatty fish can help protect your liver, says Kyle Harris, a physician assistant with Gastro MD in Tampa.
Fatty fish are usually high in a type of “good” fat: omega-3 fatty acids. This is better for the liver over other types of fats, such as saturated fats, Harris says.
In those with NAFLD, omega-3 fatty acids can help to lower triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the body that can increase your risk for heart disease.
Other examples of fatty fish include:
Two 3.5-ounce servings a week of fatty fish can provide you with overall health benefits, according to the American Heart Association.
Drinking water is good for so many organs in the body, including the liver. That’s because if you’re not drinking enough water, you could become dehydrated. Dehydration impairs the liver’s functions, Mowrer says. Water also helps the body digest your food easier, and that helps the liver do its work.
A population-based study with more than 16,400 participants published in the April 2021 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking more water was associated with a lower rate of newly diagnosed NAFLD among males. The same effect was not found in females.
Most adult females should get 91 ounces of fluids a day; for men, it’s 125 ounces daily, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. However, that can include other sources of fluid beyond just water.
Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower. These types of vegetables are good for the liver because they have fiber, which can aid with digestion. They also have compounds that could help slow the development of liver cancer, according to a 2016 review in the journal Nutrients.
Other types of cruciferous vegetables include:
— Bok choy.
Try to find creative ways to prepare cruciferous vegetables that don’t rely on high-fat sauces. Get creative with garlic, herbs, spices and ginger.
Nuts and legumes
Nuts and legumes (a category that groups together beans, lentils and peanuts, which aren’t actually nuts) are high in healthy plant compounds and the antioxidant vitamin E. This is useful not just for the liver but also the heart, Hickey says.
Walnuts in particular may help benefit those with NAFLD, according to a 2015 report in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.
Walnuts have substantially more omega-3 fatty acids compared with other tree nuts, the study authors report. They also have the highest level of polyphenols.
Much like fatty fish and walnuts, olive oil joins the list of foods for a healthy liver because it contains unsaturated fatty acids, Harris says. This is much better for the liver and the body in general compared with other types of fats, like saturated fats or trans fats.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil was associated with a lower incidence of fatty liver disease in older people who also had a higher risk for heart disease.
Use olive oil on salads, in stir fry dishes or as a replacement for butter or margarine when dipping bread.
Foods that can hurt your liver health
In addition to foods you should incorporate into your diet for better liver health, there also are some foods and drinks to try and avoid. Those include:
— Alcohol, which can lead to irreversible scarring and fibrosis of the liver and raise the risk for liver cancer, Harris says.
— Fried foods. These typically use oils high in saturated and other types of fat that can cause inflammation and excess fat in the liver, Gupta says.
— Foods that are high in saturated fats, such as bacon, cheese and fatty sauces. These could contribute to obesity and make you more prone to NAFLD.
— High-sugar foods.
Other ways to keep your liver healthy
In addition to eating healthy, there are a few other moves you can make to keep your liver in top shape:
1. Exercise regularly. Physical activity can benefit your liver, Mowrer says.
2. Do your best to manage your stress.
3. Get enough sleep. Believe it or not, your liver is affected when you don’t get enough sleep.
4. Keep a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can raise your risk for NAFLD.
Good foods and drinks for a healthy liver:
— Fatty fish.
— Cruciferous vegetable.
— Nuts and legumes.
— Olive oil.
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