Did you know that if you gain weight, your liver can gain weight, too?

The liver performs more than 500 different functions within the body. Most importantly, it filters impurities from your blood. The liver works best when it is lean, which is why it’s best to maintain a healthy weight. When there’s extra fat on the liver, it can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Most patients with NAFLD can improve their health with exercise and a healthy diet.

Left untreated, it can develop into a very serious disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can cause liver cancer and may lead to the need for a liver transplant.

Eating a healthy diet helps to reduce fat in the liver. The Mediterranean diet has shown the most promise in helping to prevent and treat NAFLD.

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What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the way people ate during the 1960s in Greece and Italy. Those people lived longer than most people in the world. They also had some of the lowest rates of chronic issues, such as cancer and heart disease, and health problems linked to diet.

The Mediterranean diet consists of mostly plant-based foods, such as whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, seeds, and olive oil. It also includes modest amounts of fish, poultry, eggs, certain cheeses, and yogurt. Red meat is seldom eaten.

Foods that rarely — if ever — appear on the Mediterranean diet include deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, cookies, cakes, pies, brownies, ice cream and other desserts, or sugary drinks. People who follow the Mediterranean diet also rarely eat processed trans fats such as margarine, refined oils (soy, cottonseed, and canola), and processed foods that contain those oils. Their primary source of fat comes from olive oil.

Types of Foods to Include When Prepping Meals

When preparing meals, choose unprocessed plant-based foods in their most natural form. Take apples, for example. Eating a fresh apple is best. Eating applesauce with sugar or other additives — or a store-bought, packaged apple pie — isn’t in the spirit of the Mediterranean diet. Peanut butter is another example. Look for natural peanut butter, made only with peanuts and a bit of salt. Peanut butter that contains sweeteners (such as sugar and corn syrup) is not part of a Mediterranean diet plan.

How Do These Foods Help Protect Your Liver?

NAFLD is the most common liver disorder in the world. As NAFLD worsens, the liver works less effectively. The Mediterranean diet — with its emphasis on plants and a lack of processed and sugary foods — can help prevent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

According to the American Liver Foundation, NAFLD and NASH are more common in people who:

  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have type 2 diabetes or are prediabetic
  • Have high levels of fat in their blood (either cholesterol or triglycerides)

Having three or more of these symptoms at the same time is called metabolic syndrome, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

You can have NAFLD or NASH without noticing any symptoms. If left untreated, NAFLD and NASH can lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis, or liver scarring, can lead to liver cancer or liver failure, which would require a transplant

To learn more about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or to make an appointment with a specialist, contact the UPMC FLOW (Fatty Liver, Obesity and Wellness) Clinic at UPMC.com/FLOW.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

New England Journal of Medicine, Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented with Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Nuts. Link

New England Journal of Medicine, Adherence to a Mediterranean Diet and Survival in a Greek Population. Link

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Mediterranean Diet Pyramid: A Cultural Model for Healthy Eating. Link

British Journal of Cancer, Conformity to traditional Mediterranean diet and cancer incidence: the Greek EPIC cohort. Link

Journal of Cardiovascular Risk, Traditional Greek Diet and Coronary Heart Disease. Link

JAMA Open Network, Assessment of Risk Factors and Biomarkers Associated With Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Among Women Consuming a Mediterranean Diet. Link

American Society for Nutrition, Practical Dietary Recommendations for the Prevention and Management of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease in Adults. Link

American Liver Foundation, Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis Information Center. Link

American Liver Foundation, NASH Complications. Link

Seven Countries Study, Mediterranean dietary patterns in the 1960s. Link

About Center for Liver Diseases

The UPMC Center for Liver Diseases provides complete care for a variety of liver conditions. Our expert hepatologists manage and treat patients using cutting-edge practices and therapies. We research and evaluate new treatments to provide the best care possible. We manage your care and, if necessary, can help you make the transition to subspecialists, including transplant surgery and oncology.