A healthy liver should contain little or no fat. However, in some people, fat can build up in the liver, causing a condition known as fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver disease is usually harmless in its early stages but, over time, can lead to liver damage. It can also raise your risk of developing serious health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
You’re more likely to develop fatty liver disease if you’re overweight or obese, but there are other risk factors.
Awareness of the causes of fatty liver disease is important in reducing your risk.
Types and causes of fatty liver disease
Alcohol-related vs. non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
There are 2 types of fatty liver disease: alcohol-related (ARLD) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
If fat builds up in your liver because of heavy drinking, you may develop ARLD. If you don’t drink heavily and still develop a fatty liver then you have NAFLD.
You may think that heavy drinking is the leading cause of liver disease, but research suggests that NAFLD is more common than ARLD in western countries. The condition affects up to a third of the population in many of those countries.
ARLD and NAFLD are closely linked, but there are important differences.
You can learn about the causes of alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) or read on to find out about the causes of NAFLD.
Why does fatty liver disease develop?
It’s not clear what causes fatty liver disease in people who don’t drink a lot of alcohol, nor why fat builds up in the liver. However, your risk of developing NAFLD increases if you:
- are overweight or obese
- have high cholesterol
- have type 2 diabetes
- have high blood pressure (hypertension)
- are over the age of 50
- have high levels of fat in your blood
Some evidence suggests that fatty liver disease may be linked to rapid weight loss, malnutrition or an inactive lifestyle.
But despite these clear risk factors for NAFLD, it’s possible to develop NAFLD without any of these risk factors. And the condition can develop at any age - it has even been diagnosed in young children.
Reducing your risk of NAFLD
If you’re worried you may be at higher risk of developing NAFLD, lifestyle changes can help to reduce your risk. Depending on your current lifestyle habits, it may help to:
- lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
- exercise regularly
- follow a well-balanced diet
For guidance, read our article on the best diet for fatty liver disease. It explains what to eat and what to avoid if you have NAFLD or if you’re at higher risk of developing the condition.
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