Approximately one quarter of all adults have fatty liver disease, increasing the risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Today, there is no medical therapy available for fatty liver disease, and it is considered a chronic disorder. However, a new Swedish study shows that a strict low carbohydrate way of eating can eliminate the fat from the liver within two weeks. This is a major breakthrough.
Fatty liver disease was previously something primarily associated with alcoholism, but the condition has seen a significant increase as part of the obesity epidemic. Studies from the United States and from Europe show that one in ten teenagers has a fatty liver, and that the condition has increased the need for liver transplantations in both adolescents and adults.
Some fat in the liver is normal. But in the long run, too much fat can cause inflammation, an increased risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Removing the fat from the liver will drastically reduce the risk of these diseases.
Current recommendations are to avoid sweetened drinks, control portion sizes and exercise, but few people manage to get rid of their liver fat. A Swedish study, carried out at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, now shows that a strict low carbohydrate approach can be of great help for sufferers. In the study, the participants continued to eat as many calories as before, while decreasing the amount of carbohydrates consumed and instead increasing the amount of protein. And participants losing weight were encouraged to consume more food, in order to maintain the weight. Despite this, fat was eliminated from the liver. The researchers saw a positive trend already on the first day.
A Surprising Discovery: the Gut Bacteria Started to Produce Folic Acid
The study, newly published in Cell Metabolism, was small – only 10 participants. However, it is very detailed and shows exactly what happens in the body when someone cuts back on starches and sugar. The metabolic functions of the liver changed immediately and the liver fat was rapidly reduced.
The scientists also detected a drastic change in gut flora. A surprising discovery was that the gut bacteria increased the production of folic acid, a vitamin necessary for normal liver metabolism. And previous studies have shown a connection between folate deficiency and fatty liver disease.
Is Sugar Worse Than Starch?
According to some researchers, eating too much sugar increases the risk of fatty liver disease. Sugar contains fructose, which is metabolized by the liver. A high intake of for example candy and soda can lead to a buildup of fat in the liver.
The hypothesis has been tested by a group of scientists at UCSF in San Francisco. They examined the effects of a diet reduced in fructose, and found that a diet that cut out fructose significantly reversed the buildup of liver fat in children and adolescents. In the experiment, the calories from fructose were replaced by glucose-rich, starchy foods. In both the UCSF study and the Gothenburg study, the calorie intake was designed to equal pre-study levels so that the participants wouldn’t lose weight. In only nine days, the participants’ liver fat had been reduced by almost 50%.
Dietary Science Foundation Supports New Study on Treatment for Fatty Liver Disease
Can we draw any conclusions? First and foremost: stop counting calories. Different types of calories have different effects on your health. Carbohydrates do more harm than good for people suffering from fatty liver disease, and we have reason to believe that sugar is the biggest culprit.
BUT. Both the Gothenburg study and the UCSF study are small and lacked a control group. In order for studies to provide results that are as objective as possible, we need large, long-term and well-controlled studies. The Dietary Science Foundation recently informed that we will support a study which will examine the effects of low carbohydrate eating and intermittent fasting (5:2) on fatty liver disease. The study will incorporate a control group, more participants and will carry on for a longer period of time. Thus, it will complete the study from Sahlgrenska in Gothenburg. Over a billion people suffer from fatty liver disease. What if there is a treatment available that could help millions of people achieve better lifelong health in only a few weeks? Think about how these results could affect healthcare costs. Simply put, a new treatment of fatty liver disease would be an amazing development.
Science journalist and writer Ann Fernholm runs the blog annfernholm.se. Now and then, she writes here at Food Pharmacy.