What is fatty liver disease?
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an accumulation of excess fat in liver cells, taking up 5 to 10 per cent of the entire organ. Typically, consuming too much alcohol is a primary cause of fat build-up in the liver, but those with NAFLD may not drink much alcohol at all. Approximately 25 per cent of the global population has the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Dr Harmeet Malhi, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, says it is the leading cause of chronic liver disease worldwide. Though it causes no permanent damage, NAFLD can progress to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can result in cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.
NAFLD is asymptomatic, meaning it usually has no physical symptoms. However, you should consult your doctor if you have any of the following risk factors. Doctors may use a variety of factors to diagnose the condition, such as blood tests, an abdominal ultrasound or scan or a liver biopsy.
You tend to be a binge eater
One of the early fatty liver symptoms is binge eating, either feeling hungry all the time or having an intense craving for sugars. These eating habits only add to the fat that is already accumulating in your liver. “We have to be cognisant of what we’re eating because we are what we eat,” Dr Rohit Loomba, director of the NAFLD Research Center at the University of California at San Diego, says. “And if we consume excess calories, especially calories that are sugar-rich or carbohydrate-rich, over a long period of time, it will have negative consequences.” He recommends keeping a food log of what you eat every day to track your sugar and fat intake. This will help you to see if your eating habits are something you need to watch out for.
You store weight in your belly
People who are overweight are at an increased risk of NAFLD. Rising rates of obesity means the threat is more prevalent than ever. Dr Loomba cautions that visceral fat (the kind stored in your abdomen that gives you a big gut) is a big concern. “As the body mass index goes up and people go from a BMI of 30 to 35 to 40, the prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease starts going up,” he says. “We’re finding that the visceral fat correlates well with liver fat, especially in middle-aged and younger adults.”