Liver disease is seen as a condition that only afflicts heavy drinkers. Yet cases are on the rise among people who don’t abuse alcohol – instead unhealthy lifestyles and poor diet are thought to be to blame.


The NHS estimates that one in three people in the UK have the early stages of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

The British Liver Trust also revealed this week that there was a 22 per cent increase in hospital admissions for liver disease in England between 2021 and 2022.

Yet this condition is hard to detect. “Liver damage develops silently with no signs or symptoms, and people often don’t realise they have a problem until it is too late,” says Pamela Healy, chief executive of British Liver Trust.

“Although the liver is remarkably resilient, if left until symptoms appear, the damage is often irreversible.

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“Early diagnosis is crucial in managing NAFLD effectively. We know that, if it is caught early, there is good evidence that losing weight can reverse damage to the liver and stop any further progression.”

So who should be concerned about developing NAFLD? We explain what causes it, how to prevent it – and the best lifestyle for your liver.

Read more about healthy eating, check out our heart-friendly recipes and get tips on how to lower your cholesterol.

Assortment of unhealthy foods

Why is the liver so important?

The liver is the second largest organ in the body and performs hundreds of functions including fighting infections and illness, removing toxins such as alcohol from the body, controlling cholesterol levels, helping blood clot and releasing bile, a liquid that breaks down fats.

Who is most at risk of developing NAFLD?

“Being obese or overweight is the main risk factor for non-alcohol related fatty liver disease and experts predict that it will become the leading cause of liver disease in the UK in the next 10 years,” says Pamela.

But being slim doesn’t make you immune. “Some people are ‘tofi’ shaped – thin on the outside, fat on the inside,” says registered dietitian Helen Bond.

“You could have visceral fat around your organs, which is a sign of metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and insulin resistance. These are all thought to increase the risk of developing NAFLD.”

Who should be particularly vigilant about NAFLD?

People with obesity or diabetes, who get 20 per cent or more of their daily calories from fast food, have severely elevated levels of fat in their liver, according to a recent University of Southern California study.

Helen adds: “Women in perimenopause and menopause should be aware. The drop in oestrogen increases our risks of many conditions, not least heart disease, and an increase in abdominal fat. These are risk factors for NAFLD.”

How is NAFLD diagnosed and treated?

Blood tests, ultrasounds and biopsy are used to diagnose NAFLD. If your NAFLD has been caught in the early stages, the British Liver Trust says lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, being more active and losing weight, can help.

“It might seem like very general advice, but these steps all reduce liver fat and inflammation,” says a spokesperson.

Healthy plant-based diet

How can your diet prevent and, in some cases, reverse NAFLD?

“It’s about going back to basics: address high cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess weight with a Mediterranean-style diet,” says Helen.

“This is essentially a plant-based diet focused on wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, herbs, less red meat, more oily fish for omega-3 fatty acids, very little sugar, low salt and to focus on minimally processed whole foods foods.

“Aim for 30 different plants a week, which will look after our gut microbes which release substances like short chain fatty acids that dampen inflammation in our whole body.

“Eating to dampen inflammation will benefit the liver as well as the other organs in the body.”

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