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6 easy steps to take charge of your liver health

by Kristin Kirkpatrick / / Source: TODAY Contributor

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It’s official: We're abusing our most precious organ. No, not your heart or brain, but your liver. We don’t think much about it and many of us don’t even know what it does (which is a lot). One-third of the nation has nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition caused mainly by obesity and poor lifestyle choices. It can worsen over time and eventually put you on a liver transplant list. Additionally, a new study shows rates of liver cancer have doubled since the 1980s, making it one of the fastest-growing cancers in the U.S.

Isn’t it time to stop beating up your liver? Here are six ways to get it back in shape:

1. Get off the couch

Making exercise a habit may be key. A recent study showed it’s not just about planning more physical activity, but perhaps about avoiding our very sedentary behavior. This concept, called “habitual physical activity,” is the kind of activity people in the "Blue Zones" get. It’s just part of their daily life and includes walking to the store or gardening.

The study found liver fat, which occurs in excess in NAFLD, could be reduced, even in individuals who do not engage in rigorous physical activity, as long as they got off the couch and moved. In your world, that may mean walking after dinner instead of watching TV, opting for stairs over elevators or parking farther from the door. Sitting is killing us. Do less of it. Your liver will be happier.

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2. Throw out the scale

Your liver cares more about your waistline than your weight. A 2016 study found individuals whose waist was greater than 35 inches for women or 40 inches in men had a much higher risk of developing the later stages of NAFLD. The risk is not about your body mass index (BMI) or how obese you are, but how much fat you’re storing in the middle. Get rid of the scale. Buy a tape measure instead. Here’s how to measure your waist.

3. Drink up!

Coffee is perhaps the best food on the planet to feed your liver. It’s like fairy dust for your hardworking organ. Researchers have identified it as a liver protector in many large studies, with the most recent showing that indulging in a coffee habit helps livers in more advanced stages of NAFLD. Authors found having just a few cups a day could help with reducing fibrosis, the first stage of scarring caused by liver inflammation. Decaffeinated coffee and herbal teas have also shown favorable impact on the liver.

4. Seriously cut back on sugar

As the rate of NAFLD has exploded, so has the finger-pointing at what’s to blame. Sugar seems to be one of the culprits. Fructose in particular has been deemed the official “bad guy” in this scary story. Perhaps it’s because fructose is the only sugar that's completely metabolized by the liver (as opposed to sucrose and glucose, which take a different metabolic pathway), or because fructose is tied to fat accumulation. Perhaps it’s because we are drowning in it. Fructose is not always found in “bad for you” liver foods. After all, fructose is the sugar found in fruits — high antioxidant plants your liver loves. It’s the soda, sugary snacks, crackers, salad dressing, yogurt, breakfast cereal and BBQ sauce that are causing damage.

Bottom line: It’s everywhere and often packaged as high fructose corn syrup. Here’s how to cut back on all sugars:

  • Avoid foods that have sugar listed as one of the first three ingredients.
  • Limit the grams of sugar in a product to no more than 4 grams per serving.
  • Don’t count sugars coming from fruit, but limit your consumption of dried fruit, which may contain too much concentrated sugar.

5. Embrace curry powder

Curry powder contains roots and spices your liver gets very excited about. It’s easy to find and even easier to use in cooking and seasoning. One ingredient in curry powder is especially promising — turmeric. Its active ingredient is curcumin, a compound that may play a role in delaying damage caused by NAFLD and other liver conditions. However, studies have found curcumin is not always well absorbed, so the benefits in real life may not always mimic what we see in the lab. That’s why I prefer curry powder to turmeric: it contains other spices (like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, mustard, nutmeg and pepper) that may help benefit health as well. If you want to help your liver out, give it as many resources as you can. Curry powder should be considered the best arsenal in your spice cabinet.

6. Load up on omega-3s

All omega-3 sources have shown benefits for strengthening our liver. That includes animal sources like wild salmon, trout and sardines, as well as plant sources like chia, flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, tofu and soybeans.

Finally, stop “cleansing” your liver with commercial products. Your liver is your detox organ. It does the job for you as long as you treat it right. Instead of spending your money on expensive cleanses and detox potions, spend it on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and a nice pair of walking shoes.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.

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