We all know that soda and other sugary drinks are bad – they harm our teeth, and the high sugar and calorie content causes weight gain. But here’s something you might not know: Studies show that sugary beverages can harm your liver as much as alcohol, if not more so. Even worse, recent research shows that they are a leading cause of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
What is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?
Fatty liver disease occurs when too much fat builds up in your liver. Alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by frequent alcohol consumption, while NAFLD is caused by other factors, including high blood sugar and high triglycerides.
NAFLD comes in two forms: simple fatty liver or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Simple fatty liver is characterized by fat in the liver, but little to no inflammation or damage in liver cells. NASH, on the other hand, involves inflammation, liver cell damage, and fat in the liver.
It’s worth noting that doctors don’t yet understand why some people on a high-fat, high-sugar diet develop NAFLD and others do not. However, a large body of research shows that a healthy diet can reduce a person’s risk for developing NAFLD.
The Link Between Sugary Drinks and NAFLD
In a recent observational study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine wanted to know just how much sugary beverages increase a person’s risk for NAFLD. So, they gathered data from the Framingham Heart Study – a long-term study on cardiovascular disease that also collects information on other conditions, like NAFLD.
The team divided over 1,600 participants into three groups based on their consumption of sugary beverages: frequent consumers (drinking between one sugary drink weekly and one daily), occasional consumers (drinking between one sugary drink monthly and one weekly), and non-consumers (drinking zero to one sugary beverage monthly).
Then, the researchers noted how many participants developed NAFLD. They also checked the participants’ liver fat levels by studying their CT scans (which were collected during the Framingham Heart Study).
The more participants drank sugary beverages, the higher their risk of NAFLD. In fact, frequent consumers were 2.53 times more likely to develop NAFLD than non-consumers. Those who drank sugary beverages occasionally or frequently also tended to have higher levels of liver fat.
Why might sugary drinks cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?
Sodas and many other sugary drinks contain high amounts of fructose. Fructose is a complex form of sugar. It’s complex enough that the body doesn’t metabolize it in the same way that it breaks down glucose. Instead, it travels to the liver, which is the only organ that can metabolize it in large quantities. When the liver processes fructose, it uses excess fructose to create fat.
The body can handle fructose from fresh fruit, because it comes in smaller doses with other forms of sugar. It also contains other beneficial nutrients, like fiber and vitamins. High-fructose drinks, on the other hand, contain nothing but this complex sugar and other processed ingredients.
This doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite sugary drinks entirely, but it might be time to cut down on them. Save those sweet beverages for special occasions! If you don’t want to go cold turkey, try slowly weaning yourself down. Look for less sugary, tasty substitutes too. Your liver will thank you.