Medically reviewed by Eric Venn-Watson, M.D.
If you’ve been diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, often referred to as NAFLD, you’re likely working with your doctor to find ways to improve your overall liver health. One of your considerations? A low-carb diet.
It may seem counterproductive to increase your fat intake and lower your carbohydrate intake as a means of decreasing liver fat, but what does the science say?
We’ll take a look at what a fatty liver is, what causes it, and how a low carb diet may help you increase your liver health.
What is Fatty Liver?
If you have a fatty liver, it means that your liver cells are storing too much fat. There are two main reasons this happens:
1. Excessive alcohol use. Drinking too much alcohol can cause your liver to store excess fat. The liver processes alcohol, and drinking too much alcohol can cause fat to build up in your liver’s cells.
2. Non-alcohol related fatty liver. Experts aren’t sure what causes some people who aren’t heavy drinkers to develop fat in their liver, but it has been linked to the following conditions:
When a person who does not abuse alcohol develops a fatty liver, it is referred to as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD.
A fatty liver usually produces no symptoms. In fact, you may never know you have a fatty liver unless you have a blood test. If you do have symptoms, they can include pain in the upper right abdomen and fatigue.
What Causes Fatty Liver Disease?
Unless you are a heavy drinker, there may be no clear reason why you are developing fat on your liver.
Sometimes, the reason will be because of the cluster of symptoms listed above (insulin resistance, excess weight around the midsection, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure). This cluster of conditions is referred to as metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome places a person at a much higher risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and fatty liver disease.
If you have any of these conditions, or if you have a fatty liver, changing your current diet to a low-carb plan may be beneficial.
Is Low Carb Good for a Fatty Liver?Eat more fat to cure… fat? Yes, but not just any fat. Let’s take a look at why a diet low in carbohydrates may be beneficial for your fatty liver and for your liver health as a whole.
What is a Low Carb Diet?
A low carbohydrate diet is a diet that is rich in fats and protein, but lower in carbohydrates. The average intake of a person on a low carbohydrate diet is between 27-57 grams of carbohydrates per day.
A person on a low carbohydrate diet will decrease their intake of carbohydrates and simultaneously replace those with healthy fats and proteins. Why limit carbohydrates in the first place?
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose by the body to be used as energy. Glucose requires your body to produce insulin to break it down so that it is usable. When you eat a carbohydrate, your pancreas releases insulin to help break down the glucose and deliver it to your cells for energy. The glucose that isn’t needed gets stored in the liver as fat.
Refined carbohydrates like sugar, flour, processed oats, white rice, and potato chips release glucose into your bloodstream quickly, generally faster than your cells need them for energy. As such, the glucose released by these carbs is often stored as fat in the liver.
Unrefined carbohydrates like beans, whole wheat, and brown rice take longer to digest. That means the glucose they release is released slowly into the bloodstream, giving your body longer to process and avoiding as much fat storage.
A person on a low carbohydrate diet has less glucose entering their bloodstream to be broken down and stored.
Low Carb and Fatty Liver: The Benefits
While it has traditionally been thought that a patient with NAFLD should avoid fat to help the liver, new studies say otherwise.
A low-carb diet will naturally benefit a person with fatty liver disease, because the person won’t be consuming as many high glycemic foods, that is, foods like refined carbs that cause your blood sugar to spike when you eat them.
When you aren’t eating as many calories in highly glycemic foods, your liver won’t have to store excess glucose as fat.
The new study (linked above) revealed that placing patients with NAFLD on a low carbohydrate diet dramatically decreased liver fat in just fourteen days. The low carb diet was also associated with a higher circulating level of folate, which has been shown to help the liver metabolize fat more effectively.
Saturated Fat and Fatty Liver
We’ve been programmed to believe that saturated fat is bad for us, and some of it may very well be… but not all of it. It’s taken science a little time to catch up, but we now know that some types of trace saturated fats are actually good for us.
Pentadecanoic acid is an odd-chain saturated fatty acid that a growing body of research shows may be the first essential fatty acid to be discovered in 90 years. What does this have to do with fatty liver?
Pentadecanoic acid, also known as C15:0 (pronounced see-fifteen), is a sturdy fatty acid that goes into your cells and helps strengthen and support them, giving them a fighting chance against the natural decline they experience as we age. In fact, studies have shown associations between higher C15:0 and lower risks of fatty liver disease. Further, use of daily C15:0 supplementation resulted in less severe disease, including lower liver fibrosis, lower cholesterol, lower inflammation, and improved liver function, across multiple models of NAFLD.
When our cells age and weaken, their function is compromised. Here’s how C15:0 helps our cells and liver:
When our cells are healthy, our overall health improves. Studies show that people with higher circulating C15:0 levels have an overall lower risk of developing NAFLD and severe alcoholic steatohepatitis.
How To Get More C15:0
C15:0 is found in trace levels in full-fat dairy products like whole milk and butter. As such, you may not be getting very much of it in your diet. We’ve been following health guidelines (from 1974) that have told us fat is bad, and those guidelines haven’t changed much since then. In addition, foods that contain trace levels of the good fat (aka C15:0) also contain much higher levels of even-chain saturated fats (like C16:0) that have been repeatedly associated with a higher risk of cardiometabolic diseases.
Because your body doesn’t make enough C15:0 and you may not be getting adequate levels from your diet, you need a viable option. You can get C15:0 in a once a day, easy to take supplement.
C15:0 can be great way to help take better care of your liver, improve your overall health, and give your cells a fighting chance as you age.
STEPHANIE VENN-WATSON, dvm, mph
Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson is a veterinary epidemiologist dedicated to improving both human and animal health. Before co-founding Seraphina Therapeutics and Epitracker, Inc,. she worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense. Dr. Venn-Watson has over 70 peer-reviewed scientific publications and is an inventor on 40+ patents. Her dedication to discovering natural compounds to improve global health has been featured in/on Forbes, NPR Science Friday, PBS, National Geographic, BBC, and more.
ERIC VENN-WATSON, MD
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson is a physician, US Navy veteran and serial entrepreneur. Prior to Seraphina Therapeutics, Eric founded multiple companies in therapeutics discovery, healthcare analytics, and medical device industries as well as working in leadership roles in several life science companies.