Avoid sugary food to fight fatty liver: Study

Fat, inflammation sharply less when intake of added sugar is limited, new research shows

NEW YORK • Overweight children with fatty liver disease sharply reduced the amount of fat and inflammation in their livers by cutting soft drinks, fruit juices and foods with added sugars from their diets, a rigorous new study found.

The new research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, suggests that limiting sugary foods and drinks may be a promising lifestyle strategy to help alleviate the condition linked to the obesity crisis that is spreading rapidly in adults and children.

About 80 million to 100 million Americans have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which causes the liver to swell with dangerous levels of fat. Roughly seven million of those are adolescents and teenagers.

Fatty liver disease typically has few symptoms and many people are not aware that they have it.

But fatty liver disease raises the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can also progress to a more severe condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, a leading cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis.

Current guidelines call for children who have fatty liver disease to exercise and eat a healthy diet, though they do not specify particular foods.

But some experts already counsel their fatty liver patients to avoid added sugars, which manufacturers commonly add to heavily processed foods.

About 80 million to 100 million Americans have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which causes the liver to swell with dangerous levels of fat. Roughly seven million of those are adolescents and teenagers.

Added sugars are typically high in fructose, which can ramp up the production of new fat when it is metabolised by the liver.

For the study, Dr Miriam Vos, one of the authors, and her colleagues recruited 40 children, about 13 years old on average, who had fatty liver disease. Most were Hispanic, a group that has a particularly high prevalence of fatty liver disease.

The researchers then randomly assigned the children to one of two diet groups for eight weeks.

One group limited added sugars, and the second group of children, which served as the control, remained on their usual diets.

They tailored the diet to the needs of each household by examining the foods they consumed in a typical week and then swopping in lower sugar alternatives.

 
 

Fruit juices, soft drinks and other sweet drinks were forbidden. They were replaced with unsweetened iced teas, milk, water and other non-sugary beverages.

Ultimately, the low-sugar diet was not restrictive. The children could eat fruit, starches and pasta, for example, and were allowed to eat as much as they wanted.

But the goal was to get their added sugar intake to less than 3 per cent of their daily calories, less than the 5 per cent to 10 per cent limit for adults and children recommended by the World Health Organisation.

After eight weeks, the low-sugar group saw their added sugar intake drop to just 1 per cent of their daily calories, compared with 9 per cent in the control group.

They also had a remarkable change in their liver health. They had a 31 per cent reduction in liver fat, on average, compared with no change in the control group.

They also had a 40 per cent drop in their levels of alanine aminotransferase, a liver enzyme that increases when liver cells are damaged or inflamed.

"This is a step, it's not the final word," another author, Dr Jeffrey Schwimmer said. "Based on this, we would envision studies that look at whether this therapy can treat the disease well enough to prevent cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and liver cancer."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2019, with the headline 'Avoid sugary food to fight fatty liver: Study'. Print Edition | Subscribe