Obesity and fatty liver disease

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Heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are just a few of the health risks linked to obesity. Another health risk, which may be lesser known, is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

NAFLD refers to excessive fat build up in liver cells that is not caused by alcohol. It is normal for the liver to contain some fat. However, if more than 5–10 percent of the liver’s weight is fat, then it is called a fatty liver.

Excess fat causes insulin resistance, which causes the pancreas to produce more insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels. This is the first step toward developing diabetes. In some instances, the accumulated fat can cause inflammation and scarring in the liver. This more serious form of NAFLD is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which can progress to liver failure.

Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI is a measurement of a person’s weight with respect to his or her height. In the US, 42 percent of adults and 19 percent of children are reported to be obese.

The cause of NAFLD is unknown. However, according to John Hopkins Medicine, individuals are at greater risk to develop fatty liver disease if they have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, insulin resistance, or are overweight or obese.

Fatty liver disease often has no symptoms. The disease is initially suspected if blood tests show high levels of liver enzymes. When symptoms do occur, they may include fatigue, weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, and nausea. Others symptoms can be yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), itching, fluid buildup, swelling of the legs and abdomen, and mental confusion.

According to the Harvard Medical School, as many as 20 percent of American adults have some degree of fatty liver disease, a condition that used to occur almost exclusively in people who drink excessively. But as obesity and diabetes have become more common, so has fatty liver disease.

To help prevent NAFLD, the American Liver Foundation suggests the following:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Only take medicines that are needed and follow dosing recommendations

Talk to your healthcare provider if you experience any symptoms of fatty liver disease.