In a time when the media is constantly reminding us of health risks, you wouldn’t think 100 million Americans could be walking around unaware that they have a potentially serious disease. And yet, that is exactly the case with regard to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Many of us have never even heard of this condition, but experts estimate that it could affect nearly a third of the US population.
The incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease parallels that of the rise in obesity. Over the past thirty years, the number of Americans struggling with obesity has risen from 23 percent to 42.5 percent. A lack of exercise, plus excess weight, can contribute to the development of the condition.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease begins as a symptomless, benign condition. Fortunately, it can also stay that way for many of us. As fat begins to accumulate in the liver, the organ begins to release higher than normal levels of enzymes. In some people – about 3 to 12 percent of the general population – will develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. This form of hepatitis can lead to scarring of the liver, cirrhosis, liver failure, and even the need for a liver transplant. In fact, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common reason for liver transplants.
That all sounds a bit scary, but keep in mind that fatty liver disease is completely preventable. Doctors recommend the following four steps to prevent the development of fatty liver disease:
- Lose weight – reduce your body mass index (BMI) to below 40, or 35 if you have diabetes.
- Avoid added sugars – paradoxically, sugar in foods actually contributes to fatty liver disease more than fat. Pay close attention to avoiding corn syrup.
- Exercise regularly – choose activities you enjoy and focus on moving rather than calorie counts. Exercise is good for your mood and fights inflammation, so it’s not all about weight loss.
And of course, you should discuss these issues with your doctor. Screening for fatty liver disease is complicated, and in some cases the tests themselves can be risky. Since a healthy diet and exercise are effective at warding off a long list of health problems, it can be a good idea to pursue a lifestyle change regardless of whether you have already developed fatty liver disease.