Looking after your liver through your diet.
Your liver is an amazing organ. It is the largest organ after the skin and can weigh up to about 1.5kg in adult men. It is often said to be the size of a football, which is apt because it takes a daily kicking from the onslaught of chemicals we put into our body! As well as producing the bile that is needed to help digest fat and some hormones, your liver filters the blood that comes straight from your digestive tract removing sugars, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals which are stored in the liver, transformed into energy, or transported around the body when needed. The liver also detoxifies our body of any chemicals our body does not want. These include toxins and poisonous chemicals such as alcohol, drugs, and pollutants.
I think we take much of what our liver does for our body for granted. Furthermore, many seem to forget or are unaware what our liver does, because every day, nutritionists like myself have to deal with people selling detoxes and liver cleanses to the masses with promises of improvements to health that range from weight loss to treating liver disease. Everyone seems to be looking for a quick fix, but the truth is, there isn’t one.
The body and liver do not need a detox, because the liver is the detox. The liver is so fantastic at what it does, it even detoxes itself! Over the counter detoxes come in all shapes and sizes – juice cleanses, tablets, shakes, fasting protocols just to name a few – but generally when doing a detox, the body is given respite from harmful dietary habits. I’ll let you in on a secret – you don’t need to spend money on expensive detoxes, just eat well normally!
“But when I do a detox, I feel fantastic afterwards!” I hear you cry.
Of course, you do! You are drinking plenty of water, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and abstaining from alcohol and other intoxicating substances. This is the advice given by every dietitian and nutritionist in the land. You aren’t feeling better because you have detoxified yourself, it’s because you are eating better. Some detoxes I’ve seen risk doing you more harm than good. For example, if you are doing a juice cleanse, you are severely restricting your fat and protein intake which is not healthy. No healthy diet should be so restrictive that you are missing out on nutrients.
It is believed that foods high in vitamin K prevent calcium deposits in the heart, and therefore help to prevent heart disease.
Damage to the liver mostly occurs over many years, rather than over a short period of time. Toxic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver in response to certain poisonous chemical. But there is one form of liver disease we are hearing about more often and this is fatty alcohol liver disease (ALD) and its dietary induced form, non-alcohol fatty liver disease. One is caused by drinking excessive alcohol, the other is usually seen in overweight people and people with diabetes. The liver is a robust organ that can regenerate itself, however liver disease can lead to cirrhosis, of which scarring of the liver tissue is permanent. Giving your liver a 2-week break is no good if you have been eating an unhealthy diet for years. Developing a healthy lifestyle with healthy eating habits is the best way to prevent liver damage.
With the rise of fad diets, two diets that could potentially overload the liver are the carnivore diets and ketogenic diets. Whilst the latter does have its clinical uses with epilepsy, and there is some evidence to support its use in short term weight loss which in turn could help with NAFLD, it is not recommended for longer than 6 months. This is down to the fact we do not know what the long-term effects of such a diet can be. Both the carnivore and ketogenic diets are high fat, and high and moderate protein, respectively. Therefore, it is reasonable to predict that over time, such a diet could overload the liver. Until we have results from long-term studies, it is advisable to stick to a balanced diet with most of our calories coming from complex carbohydrates.
So next time January 1st comes around, along with the first hangover of the year, you grab some water, put your feet up, and let your trusty liver do the job. But for the rest of the year, that’s when you put the work in, if you can call it work!
1. Stay hydrated – 8-10 glass of water per day
2. At least half of each meal should be plant-based. Aim for a good balance of vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, and pulses.
3. Try to abstain or cut back on alcohol and drugs.
4. Be more active – move your body in any way that feels good to you.
5. If you are overweight and need help living a heal.thy lifestyle, seek support from a nutritionist or dietitian.
6. Avoid vitamin supplements if you have not been advised to take them by a medical professional. Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K are stored in your liver and too much can lead to vitamin toxicity – hyper vitaminosis.
Article written for Thrive Magazine Autumn 2020 issue >>
Anne holds a First class honours (BSc) degree in Human Nutrition at the University of Greenwich. Anne has a keen interest in nutrition’s involvement in mood disorders, as well as nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics