How to Eat Your Way to a Healthy Liver

Drew Swantak

If you think the sole purpose of the liver is to magically turn alcohol into euphoria into hangovers, we’ve got some bad news: certain foods can also stress your liver. Organs are a fussy bunch!

We asked three doctors which foods to watch out for if you want a thriving liver... which you do, because it’s your liver.


You can get cirrhosis even if you’ve never had a drop of alcohol

In spite of all the dire warnings you got from your mom while you were in college, drinking too much isn’t the only cause of cirrhosis. Cirrhosis happens when fat buildup in the liver causes it to become inflamed and develop scars. The first stage, known as fatty liver disease, can come in two forms: alcoholic and nonalcoholic. That’s right. You can get liver disease without drinking a drop of alcohol.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is strongly associated with poor nutrition and excess weight. “Both diseases, over an extended period of injury, will lead to advanced scarring, and eventually cirrhosis,” explains Dr. Shahid M. Malik, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. And the nonalcoholic version is a pretty big deal: “It is actually much more common than alcoholic liver disease,” he says. “About one in every three Americans has some degree of fat in the liver.” This is an increasing concern, especially in Westernized countries, which tend to eat lots of fried and processed food. The delicious stuff, in other words.

Flickr/Stephanie Vacher

Are soda and white bread as bad as liquor?

Well, kind of! “A diet high in refined carbohydrates and high-fructose corn syrup may lead to the development and progression of fatty liver disease,” says Kathleen E. Corey, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Fatty Liver Clinic. We’re talking white bread, white rice, and sugary drinks like soda and sweetened fruit juice.

These foods turn up everywhere in the standard American diet, making them especially sneaky. Soda is an obvious one, but even crackers -- seemingly healthy! -- may contain loads of white flour and added sugar, which means you might be taxing your liver more than you realize.

Dr. Ming V. Lin, a liver transplant specialist, agrees: “These [foods] cause a higher surge of blood glucose and a large release of insulin, which promote fatty deposits on the liver.” If you haven’t been following, your liver isn’t supposed to have fatty deposits on it.

Ultimately, though, sugar is the biggest food group to avoid for a healthy liver. In one study, researchers found that patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease consumed more than twice as much fructose than the healthy controls -- a pretty drastic difference, and one that maybe, could be, quite possibly means beer is better for you than soda? We’re OK with that.

Flickr/Larry Hoffman

Salt = completely fine!

Some people will tell you that salt is bad, but as far as your liver goes, you can drink a limitless amount of water straight from the Dead Sea with no ill effects (note: don’t do this, for a lot of reasons). Dr. Lin confirms that “foods high in salt do not have a direct negative impact on the liver, especially in people who have healthy livers.” If you already have liver disease, you’re going to want to avoid it, and also consult with your doctor, because you have liver disease.

Flickr/Matthew Bednarik

Avoid doubling your liver’s workload

If you like your rum the way it’s found in nature -- paired with cola -- keep in mind that you’re asking your liver to pull double duty, what with the overload of sugar AND booze. Dr. Corey warns that “two hits are more likely to result in progressive disease,” and she’s not talking about hits to the head.

It’s not so much about whether you have alcohol and refined carbs together in one sitting; it’s more about your overall diet and drinking habit. Put simply, consuming nothing but fast food and alcohol is like keeping your liver in the red RPM zone at all times. Not good.

And the domino effect is especially important here: if you’re drinking gin tonight, you’re probably also having tonic, and later heading to the pizza joint on the corner for a slice (or four) that you wouldn’t eat sober.

Flickr/Martin Alvarez Espinar

Your liver likes it when you weigh less

It’s fairly well established that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease usually occurs together with other issues like obesity, type II diabetes, and an imbalance of lipids in the blood. “In the long term, it just comes down to overall calories and weight,” advises Dr. Malik. Since that soda-and-processed-food combo also may cause weight gain, it makes sense that the two are related.

But, of course, everyone wants a shortcut, and there are plenty of supplements on the market that purport to protect your liver against damage. Don’t try the biohacking route when your liver’s at stake; most supplements aren’t likely to reverse any damage. “Currently, there is no high-quality evidence to support the use of any of these in promoting liver health, and some of these may even cause harm,” says Dr. Lin.

Keeping your liver in good shape is relatively simple: try to avoid mixing booze with sugar, steer clear of soda generally, and don’t go crazy with processed foods. Do these things, and you’ll have a liver of steel.

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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist and she's debating switching her whiskey ginger order to a whiskey neat. For more on food and your health, follow her tweets: @MariKomarovsky.