Is your liver too fat?

Fat build-up in this vital organ can lead to serious liver disease

TORONTO, Jan. 15, 2014 /CNW/ - Love handles, pot bellies, muffin tops – there are lots of creative ways that we describe the excess weight that we see in the mirror. So what do we call the fat that we can't see? When it's in the liver, it may be a first step toward liver disease.

Fatty liver disease is now the most common form of liver disease in Canada and is poised to one day overtake  hepatitis C as the leading cause of liver transplants.

 "Fatty liver disease is rarely mentioned when it comes to risks associated with obesity," says Dr. Morris Sherman, Chairman of the Canadian Liver Foundation and a liver specialist in Toronto. "And yet, fat build-up in the liver can have very real consequences. Unfortunately, while more and more doctors are finding liver fat showing up on ultrasounds, they don't necessarily know what to do about it."

Fatty liver disease is caused by the accumulation of fat in liver cells. The greater the percentage of fat in the liver, the greater the risk of developing liver inflammation, fibrosis or cirrhosis (moderate or severe scarring of the liver) or even liver cancer. In addition to obesity, fatty liver disease has also been linked to other risk factors, including insulin resistance, hyperlipidaemia, high blood pressure, and Type II diabetes.

Dr. Maitreyi Raman, a Calgary gastroenterologist, physician nutrition specialist  and co-author of Healing Fatty Liver Disease: A Complete Health & Diet Guide, sees 10  patients a week with fatty liver disease. For many, the diagnosis comes as a result of tests for other obesity-related conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. 

"People do not understand how eating habits can affect the liver," says Dr. Raman. "They are surprised to learn that a high calorie, sugar-laden diet can over time damage the liver in the same way as long-term excessive consumption of alcohol. In fact, under a microscope, you could not distinguish the liver of an alcoholic from the liver of someone with fatty liver disease who had never had a drink."  

According to Stats Canada data, one in 4 Canadian adults is obese and almost a third of children 5-17 are overweight or obese. As obesity rates have risen, so has the prevalence of fatty liver disease. Waist size is one sign of excess abdominal fat which may translate into fat build-up in the liver. Waist circumference greater than 102cm (40in) for men and 88cm (35in) for women is cause for concern.

"While fat in the liver may not always lead to severe disease, it is not something to be ignored," says Dr. Sherman. "Fatty liver disease is preventable and in many cases even reversible if it is caught before cirrhosis develops. Since this is the time of year when a lot of people are making commitments about weight loss, it's important to know that one of the payoffs can be a healthier liver. It's definitely worth the effort."

To help protect against fatty liver disease, here are a few tips:

  • Ask your doctor for a liver enzyme test  which will ensure fatty liver disease or other liver problems are identified as early as possible.
  • If you are overweight, strive for gradual and sustained weight loss through proper nutrition and exercise.
  • Reduce your sugar intake and eat a well-balanced diet that is low in saturated fats and high in fibre.
  • Introduce exercise into your routine, at least four times a week.
  • Avoid alcohol which can also lead to fat build-up in the liver.

For more statistics on fatty liver disease, download Fatty Liver Fast Facts

For more information on liver health or fatty liver disease, contact the Canadian Liver Foundation at 1-800-563-5483 or visit www.liver.ca

About the Canadian Liver Foundation

Founded in 1969 by a group of doctors and business leaders concerned about the increasing incidence of liver disease, the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) was the first organization in the world devoted to providing support for research and education into the causes, diagnoses, prevention and treatment of all liver disease. Through its chapters across the country, the CLF strives to promote liver health, improve public awareness and understanding of liver disease, raise funds for research and provide support to individuals affected by liver disease.

SOURCE Canadian Liver Foundation

For further information: Melanie Kearns, 416-491-3353 x4923, mkearns@liver.ca