How to Avoid Fatty Liver Disease

In the documentary Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock eats exclusively at McDonald’s for a month and predictably his weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol go up, but so do his liver enzymes, a sign his liver cells are dying and spilling their contents into the bloodstream. His one-man experiment was actually formally replicated. A group of men and women agreed to eat two fast food meals a day for a month. Most of their liver values started out normal, but, within just one week, most were out of whack, a profound pathological elevation in liver damage.

What’s happening is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the next global epidemic, as I discuss in my video How to Prevent Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. Fatty deposits in the liver result in a disease spectrum from asymptomatic fat buildup to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can lead to liver scarring and cirrhosis, and may result in liver cancer, liver failure, and death.

NAFLD is now the most common cause of chronic liver disease in the United States, affecting 70 million Americans, nearly one in three adults. Fast food consumption is a great way to bring it on, since it’s associated with the intake of soft drinks and meat. Drinking one can of soda a day may raise the odds of NAFLD by 45 percent, and those eating the equivalent of 14 chicken nuggets’ worth of meat a day have nearly triple the rates of fatty liver compared to those eating 7 nuggets or less.

It’s been characterized as a tale of fat and sugar, but evidently not all types of fat are culpable. Those with fatty hepatitis were found to have eaten more animal fat and cholesterol, and less plant fat, fiber, and antioxidants. This may explain why adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet, characterized by high consumption of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, is associated with less severe non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It could also be related to the presence of specific phytonutrients, like the purple, red, and blue anthocyanin pigments found in berries, grapes, plums, red cabbage, red onions, and radicchio. These anthocyanin-rich foods may be promising for the prevention of fatty liver, but that’s mostly based on petri dish experiments. There was one clinical trial that found that drinking a purple sweet potato beverage seemed to successfully dampen liver inflammation.

A more plant-based diet may also improve our microbiome, the good bacteria in our gut. “‘We are what we eat’ is the old adage but the modern version might be ‘we are what our bacteria eat.’” When we eat fat, we may facilitate the growth of bad bacteria, which can release inflammatory molecules that increase the leakiness of our gut and contribute to fatty liver disease.

Fatty liver disease can also be caused by cholesterol overload. The thought is that dietary cholesterol found in eggs, meat, and dairy oxidizes and then upregulates liver X receptor alpha, which can upregulate something else called SREBP, which can increase the level of fat in the liver. Cholesterol crystals alone cause human white blood cells to spill out inflammatory compounds, just like uric acid crystals in gout. That’s what may be triggering the progression of fatty liver into serious hepatitis: “the accumulation of sufficient concentrations of free cholesterol within steatotic hepatocytes [fatty liver cells] to cause crystallization of the cholesterol.” This is one of several recent lines of evidence suggesting that dietary cholesterol plays an important role in the development of fatty hepatitis—that is, fatty liver inflammation.

In a study of 9,000 American adults followed for 13 years, researchers found a strong association between dietary cholesterol intake and hospitalization and death from cirrhosis and liver cancer, as dietary cholesterol can oxidize and cause toxic and carcinogenic effects. To limit the toxicity of excess cholesterol derived from the diet, the liver tries to rid itself of cholesterol by dumping it into the bloodstream. So, by measuring the non-HDL cholesterol in the blood, one can predict the onset of fatty liver disease. If we subtract HDL from total cholesterol, none of the hundreds of subjects followed with a value under 130 developed the disease. Drug companies view non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as a bonanza, “as is the case of any disease of affluence…considering its already high and rising prevalence and…[its] needing continuous pharmacologic treatment,” but maybe avoiding it is as easy as changing our diet, avoiding sugary and cholesterol-laden foods.

“The unpalatable truth is that NAFLD could almost be considered the human equivalent of foie gras (loosely translated from French as ‘fat liver’). As we overeat and ‘force-feed’ ourselves foods that can result in serious health implications, however, having such a buttery texture in human livers is not a delicacy to be enjoyed by hepatologists [liver doctors] in clinical practice!”


Like my video Preventing Gout Attacks with Diet, How to Prevent Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease covers an important topic worth the extensive coverage the video provides.

For more on how bad added sugars are for us, see:

For more on how bad cholesterol can be, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Black and Red Rice are Better Than Brown, Which is Healthier Than White

Why does switching from white rice to brown rice enable overweight individuals to significantly reduce their weight, their waist size, their blood pressure, and the level of inflammation within their bodies? That’s the topic of my video Brown, Black, Purple, and Red (Unlike White on) Rice.

We think it might be the fiber. Brown rice has four times as much dietary fiber as white rice, including prebiotic types of fiber that foster the growth of our good bacteria, which may help account for the anti-obesity effects of brown rice.

Besides the prebiotic fiber, when brown rice is milled into white, there are all sorts of vitamins and minerals that also are lost, as well as phytonutrients such as gamma oryzanol, which may help shift one’s preferences to healthier foods. Petri dish studies suggest gamma oryzanol may help lower cholesterol. And, along with other compounds found in the rice bran, which is what makes brown rice brown, gamma oryzanol may inhibit human cancer cell growth through antioxidant means, anti‑proliferative and pro-cancer cell suicide mechanisms, immune system modulation, and increasing barrier protection. However, this was all seen in test tubes, not people.

There are two human studies, though. The Adventist Health Study found that brown rice was one of four foods associated with significantly decreased risk of colorectal polyps, which can turn into colorectal cancer. Eating cooked green vegetables every day was associated with 24 percent lower risk, which was as much as eating dried fruit just three times a week. Eating beans, chickpeas, split peas, or lentils at least three times a week was associated with 33 percent lower risk, but brown rice seemed to garner 40 percent lower risk, and that was just a single serving or more a week.

The other human study reported increased muscle strength after supplementation with a brown rice compound in hopes that it could provide a side effect-free alternative to anabolic steroids. The dose the researchers were giving, however, is equivalent to approximately 17 cups of brown rice a day, so it’s not clear if it works at practical doses.

Naturally pigmented rice, such as black rice and red rice, may be even more nutritious than brown rice. During the last decade, research has shown that these natural anthocyanin plant pigments may have a variety of beneficial effects. Anthocyanins are what make blueberries blue and red cabbage red. “Recent recognition of the fact that taking diet rich in plant foods lowers the risks of cancer promotes the enthusiasms in isolating…[these components as] pharmaceutical agents”—but why not just eat the blueberries or add some red cabbage to your stir fry atop some colorful rice?

Black, purple, and red rice—and their pigment compounds—have been found to be involved in a variety of antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-heart disease, anti-diabetes, and anti-allergy activities, but these were all studies done in a lab. We don’t yet have clinical studies, but these pigmented rice varieties have everything that brown rice has, plus five times more antioxidants and a variety of extra benefits. That’s why I, or rather my rice cooker, has always cookde red, black, or purple rice with a handful of lentils or split peas thrown in for good measure, since they cook in the same time frame. If you see below to my arsenic in rice series you’ll note I’ve since diversified my grains.

But why don’t most people even choose brown over white? Well, brown rice does not last as long on the shelves, so it can actually be more expensive even though it’s less processed. White rice, on the other hand, is like food for the apocalypse, even putting Twinkies to shame. White rice was still edible after 30 years—though, by then, it may have a “slight playdough” odor.


For more on rice, see:

Several years ago, I made a video on Arsenic in Rice, which deserved an update so I took a deep dive into the arsenic issue and produced a whole video series so everyone can make informed choices:

And, for more on the potential wonders of the blue/black/purple anthocyanin pigments, check out these videos:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

We Have Specific Fruit and Vegetable Receptors

According to a recent survey, the number of Americans adults who say they are eating ‘pretty much whatever they want’ is at an all-time high,” which unfortunately includes “too few fruits and vegetables,” as well as “too little variety.” Half of all fruit servings are taken up by just six foods: orange juice, bananas, apple juice, apples, grapes, and watermelons. Only five foods—iceberg lettuce, frozen potatoes, fresh potatoes, potato chips, and canned tomatoes—make up half of all vegetable servings. We’re not only eating too few fruits and veggies. We’re also missing out on the healthiest fruits, which are berries, and the healthiest vegetables, which are dark green leafies. The fruit and vegetable palette for our palate is sadly lacking.

Why does dietary diversity matter? As I discuss in my video Specific Receptors for Specific Fruits and Vegetables, different foods may affect different problems. Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are associated with lower risk of colon cancer in the middle and right side of our body, whereas risk of colon cancer further down on the left side of our body appears to be better lowered by carrots, pumpkins, and apples. So, “different F/V [fruits and vegetables] may confer different risks for cancer” of different parts of even the same organ.

Variety is the spice of life—and may prolong it. “Independent from quantity of consumption, variety in fruit and vegetable consumption may decrease lung cancer risk,” meaning if two people eat the same number of fruits and vegetables, the one eating a greater variety may be at lower risk.

It’s not just cancer risk. In a study of thousands of men and women, a greater quantity of vegetables and a greater variety may independently be beneficial for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Even after removing the effects of quantity, “each different additional two item per week increase in variety of F&V [fruit and vegetable] intake was associated with an 8% reduction in the incidence of T2D [type 2 diabetes].” Why? Well, it “may be attributable to individual or combined effects of the many different bioactive phytochemicals contained in F&V. Thus, consumption of a wide variety of F&V will increase the likelihood of consuming” more of them.

“All the vegetables may offer protection…against chronic diseases,” but “[e]ach vegetable group contains a unique combination and amount of these [phytonutrients], which distinguishes them from other groups and vegetables within their own group.” Indeed, because “each vegetable contains a unique combination of phytonutriceuticals (vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and phytochemicals), a great diversity of vegetables should be eaten…to get all the health benefits.”

Does it matter, though, if we get alpha-carotene or beta-carotene? Isn’t an antioxidant an antioxidant? No. “It has been shown that phytochemicals bind to specific receptors and proteins” in our bodies. For example, our body appears to have a green tea receptor—that is, a receptor for EGCG, which is a key component of green tea. There are binding proteins for the phytonutrients in grapes, onions, and capers. In my video The Broccoli Receptor: Our First Line of Defense, I talk about the broccoli receptor, for instance. Recently, a cell surface receptor was identified for a nutrient concentrated in apple peels. Importantly, these target proteins are considered indispensable for these plants foods to do what they do, but they can only do it if we actually eat them.

Just like it’s better to eat a whole orange than simply take a vitamin C pill, because, otherwise, we’d miss out on all the other wonderful things in oranges that aren’t in the pill, by just eating an apple, we’re also missing out on all the wonderful things in oranges. When it comes to the unique phytonutrient profile of each fruit and vegetable, it truly is like comparing apples to oranges.


This is one of the reasons I developed my Daily Dozen checklist of foods to incorporate into one’s routine. Download the free iPhone and Android apps, and be sure to watch my video Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist.

I discuss how produce variety—not just quality and quantity—may be important in Apples and Oranges: Dietary Diversity and Garden Variety Anti-Inflammation, so I hope you’ll check them out. You can also learn more about why combining certain foods together may be more beneficial than eating them separately in Food Synergy.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: