YOU MIGHT NOT express gratitude for your liver (or even think about it) much, but it’s working around the clock for you.
It's a very impressive organ, says Meena B. Bansal, M.D., professor of medicine, and director of translational research in liver diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It's the first line of defense for any toxin that may try to make its way into our system.
The liver is incredibly resistant to injury, and seriously resilient. Did you know your liver can grow back to a normal size even after up to 90 percent of it has been removed?
Ahead, a primer on all the liver’s incredible functions and top foods to eat to support the star organ.
What Does the Liver Do?
You can consider the liver as the gatekeeper to everything we intake, Bansal says. When you eat food or take medications, all the blood flow from the stomach and intestines is first filtered through the liver which then detoxifies medications, metabolizes carbohydrates, lipids and clears bacterial products that may have escaped the gut.
“In addition, it makes proteins like clotting factors and maintains healthy blood sugar levels,” she adds. “It produces bile that is needed to help us digest and absorb fats in the small intestine.”
The liver is your body’s “metabolic powerhouse,” says Kim Yawitz, R.D., a gym owner in St. Louis, Mo. Everything you ingest passes through this gate. The good stuff, like food is broken down into energy and nutrients, then distributed throughout the body or stored away for later use. The bad stuff, like toxins, are filtered out of the blood to be excreted via urine or stool.
“The liver is responsible for hundreds of life-sustaining functions, so it’s really important to take good care of it,” Yawitz says.
What Makes a Food Good for the Liver?
There are several things that make foods liver-friendly.
Bansal says foods that are anti-inflammatory or have antioxidant properties are beneficial to the liver. Foods that are high in fiber and promote a healthy weight are also helpful to the liver.
“Highly processed foods that contain fructose corn-syrup are bad for the liver as they cause the liver cells to make unhealthy lipids (fat). As this fat accumulates, it can cause liver injury and inflammation,” she says. Basically, the less processed and unadulterated the food you eat, the better. “Think farm to table.”
As a rule of thumb, Bansal says that foods that you think of as good for your heart are also ones that are good for your liver. Just as the Mediterranean Diet is known to support cardiovascular health, so does it for your liver. There is no one food in this diet plan that is driving the beneficial effects, but rather it's the combination of its multiple components, says Bansal.
“Conceptually an overall diet that is 50 percent fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lentils, legumes; 30 percent healthy fat (think avocados, extra-virgin olive oil); 20 percent lean protein from chicken and fish containing omega-3 fatty acids is considered the best combination,” she says.
While there’s no single food that will magically improve liver health, foods high in fiber, healthy fats, and certain antioxidants support optimal liver function. Not surprising— alcohol and drugs can damage the liver, as can eating too much sugar, salt, and saturated fat.
Overall, healthy lifestyle choices are healthy liver choices. “The best ways to protect your liver are to eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy body weight,” says Yawitz.
Okay, we know it’s technically a beverage, but we’re putting this one first.
"The only food where there is clear evidence for a beneficial impact on your liver is coffee,” says Bansal. “Coffee consumption is associated with improvement in liver enzymes, especially in individuals with risk for liver disease."
Those with pre-existing liver disease have shown improvements in incidence rates of fibrosis and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and overall mortality when given three or more cups of coffee per day, she says. Interestingly, scientists do not completely understand what exact components of coffee are conferring the benefit since there are numerous compounds in coffee, but it is thought to be the combination.
Ideally, you should drink black caffeinated coffee to avoid the excess calories that come from cream and sugar, Bansal says. It's worth noting that decaffeinated coffee does not confer the same benefit as regular coffee, but there is no clear evidence that caffeine is the driver of the benefits. Don't get any ideas, though—caffeine supplements are not going to provide the same effect.
Not a coffee drinker? Black tea may prove helpful for liver health too, though it might not be to the same effect, Bansal says. “So if you have a choice, drink coffee. If you cannot drink coffee then black tea may have some benefit albeit much smaller.”
One of the Mediterranean Diet's staple foods, olive oil, is worth highlighting for how it may support your liver health.
“Olive oil is a good source of monounsaturated fat—a healthy fat that improves cholesterol and triglyceride levels,” says Yawitz. Olive oil also contains antioxidants that have been found to protect against liver inflammation and scarring. Plus, its versatility makes it quick and easy to add to any diet.
Yawitz recommends using olive oil as base for homemade salad dressings, drizzle it over vegetables before or after roasting, or swap it in for the vegetable oil in your baked goods.
“In animal models, curcumin, which is a polyphenol found in turmeric, has been shown to be beneficial for the liver, though data is scarce demonstrating any positive effect in humans,” says Bansal.
No need to go buy turmeric supplements, but adding natural turmeric to your food may be a tasty way to benefit the liver.
Not all yogurts are created equal—some are total sugar bombs. But if you take some time to check your labels, your liver may thank you. Your best bet is to pick a brand with live, active cultures and zero added sugar, Yawitz says.
“High cholesterol has been shown to increase inflammation and scarring in the liver. But yogurt could help protect against liver damage, thanks to probiotics that help break down LDL ('bad') cholesterol,” says Yawitz. In a 2019 study, probiotic yogurt was found to significantly reduce total and LDL cholesterol in adults with mild to moderately high cholesterol.
Did you think you could make it to the end of this list without us showing H2O some respect? Of course not. Yes, we know it's another beverage. Trust us, it warrants merit.
“Water isn’t the most exciting drink for liver health, but it helps keep your body’s filtration system running smoothly,” says Yawitz. “In a large 2021 study, men who drank at least eight glasses of water daily were less likely to develop NAFLD than men who didn’t drink as much water."
Since drinking less alcohol and more water are both good for the liver, she recommends replacing one adult drink daily with a glass of water. Need help getting your ounces in? We got you.
Perri is a New York City-born and -based writer; she holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Columbia University and is also a culinary school graduate of the plant-based Natural Gourmet Institute, which is now the Natural Gourmet Center at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her work has appeared in the New York Post, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, Oprah Daily, Insider.com, Architectural Digest, Southern Living, and more. She's probably seen Dave Matthews Band in your hometown, and she'll never turn down a bloody mary. Learn more at VeganWhenSober.com.
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