There are some things that can be bad for your liver, like heavy drinking or taking high doses of medications. However, certain foods can be good for your liver health, too. And it’s super important to keep your liver healthy, as it’s a powerful organ that handles a ton of functions that our bodies need to run smoothly.
“The liver completes very important functions no other organ can perform. And once the liver is severely damaged, there's no way to treat it medically, other than a liver transplant, which is a very serious proposition with a lot of downsides,” says Suzanne Dixon, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center.
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What does the liver do, exactly? The liver's main job is to filter the blood coming from the digestive tract, before sending it out to the rest of the body, and it detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes drugs to keep the body safe. “In summary, we simply cannot live without our livers,” she says, so it’s pretty important to fuel it with the right foods and to live a healthy lifestyle to protect it from harm.
What role does food play in liver health?
Food can play a critical role in liver health. “In fact, health experts have noted there has been a big increase in NAFLD or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This is a sign of damage to the liver that isn't due to overindulging in alcohol,” says Dixon. Alcohol abuse is a major cause of liver problems in the U.S., but now doctors are seeing more cases of liver damage, manifesting as fatty liver, in young people with no history of heavy drinking, where food is often to blame.
That being said, the best thing you can do is maintain a healthy body weight and avoid simple carbohydrates and sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, as well as to drink alcohol and take medication in moderation, says Dixon. (Unless you’re prescribed high doses from a doctor.)
You should also load up on healthy foods that nourish your liver and help it function. These are the best foods to eat for optimal liver health—and good news, they’re pretty tasty, too!
Artichokes can help protect your liver from damage. “Compounds found in this food are studied for their ability to prevent liver-damaging toxins from entering liver cells. In fact, artichokes are in the same plant family as milk thistle, an herbal product used to promote liver health,” says Dixon. Enjoy roasted with some olive oil or add to a salad for extra fiber and nutrition.
Beans are loaded with healthy fiber, which is known to support a healthy microbiome (your gut health). A healthy microbiome, in turn, is linked to improved liver health, says Dixon. Use beans as a plant-based source of protein and fiber to stay full longer and to help purify your liver.
“As with beans, it's all about the microbiome. Only in this case, instead of supplying the ‘food’ (fiber) your microbiome bugs like to eat, the yogurt actually replenishes the microbes themselves,” says Dixon, as yogurt contains probiotics, which are those beneficial gut-friendly bacteria. Get unsweetened, plain Greek yogurt to keep added sugar low and to reap those probiotic benefits.
Believe it or not, your morning cup of joe has some liver protective effects, and while it’s not a food, it’s definitely something people love to drink for energy and flavor. “Coffee is noted for its ability to prevent the build up of fat and connective tissue (both are present in liver disease) in the liver,” says Dixon. “Coffee also appears to reduce inflammation in the liver and increase levels of antioxidants the body naturally produces (called glutathione),” she says.
Coffee beans are rich in antioxidants, so try to enjoy it in its pure state if possible. “Just make sure you stick to coffee black or with just a splash of cream or a small spoonful of sugar. Skip the fluffy, fancy coffee drinks that are loaded with sugar and calories,” she says.
Bright Purple and Red Berries
“Blueberries, blackberries, cranberries and similar foods are loaded with a group of compounds called polyphenols. These substances appear to protect liver cells from damage and supply antioxidants to reduce free-radical damage in liver tissue,” says Dixon. Add some to yogurt for double the benefits, or enjoy a handful when you’re craving something sweet and satisfying.
Here’s another reason green vegetables are so good for you. Cruciferous vegetables (think: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, chard, mustard and collard greens, bok choy, watercress, horseradish, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts) support the liver's ability to detoxify the many less-than-healthy things we come into contact with (hello breathing, eating, and drinking) every day.
These veggies have quercetin, which has been shown to have positive effects on the liver. Filling up on these greens may also reduce risk for liver cancer, says Dixon.
Fatty Fish and Nuts
Healthy sources of fat reduce inflammation, which keeps your liver healthy. “This, in turn, appears to protect the liver from damage and day-to-day wear and tear,” says Dixon. Enjoy at least 2-3 servings of fish a week, and munch on nuts when you need a snack. Yet, limit to a handful or so to keep calories and fat in check—there’s quite a bit of both per serving.
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