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We all know that soda and other sugary drinks aren’t good for our overall health. Research has shown a link between sugary sodas and tooth decay, heart disease, kidney stones, and more.
And now there’s a new risk to add to the list: Liver disease. Researchers from Tufts University have discovered that people who drink just one or more sugar-sweetened beverage a day (like soda) are at an increased risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
The research, which was published in the Journal of Hepatology, analyzed the dietary habits of 2,634 study participants who were asked in a questionnaire how often they drank sugar-sweetened beverages. Those drinks included caffeinated and caffeine-free soda, other carbonated sugary drinks, fruit punches, lemonade, and other non-carbonated fruit drinks.
Participants then underwent a CT scan to measure the amount of fat in their livers. Researchers discovered a higher presence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in those who said they drank more than one sugary beverage a day compared to those who said they didn’t drink sugary beverages.
Here’s why this is troubling: According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25 percent of adults in the U.S. drink soda or fruit drinks at least once a day.
Sugars found in soda in particular have been linked with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, says William Carey, MD, professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and a fellow of American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. “Many studies suggest that the high fructose corn syrup found in sodas is more likely to result in fatty liver than other forms of sugar,” he says.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease impacts up to 25 percent of Americans and often occurs in people who are overweight or have diabetes, according to the American Liver Foundation. It can also be triggered by rapid weight loss and poor eating habits, the foundation says.
While the disease is often asymptomatic, it can cause fatigue, weakness, weight loss, a loss of appetite, jaundice, and abdominal pain, among other symptoms.
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It’s particularly bad because it affects multiple parts of your body, says hepatologist Kalyan Ram Bhamidimarri, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“A lot of patients who have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can actually do okay,” he tells Yahoo Health. “But when the fat is associated with inflammation, patients will have non-alcoholic steatohepatitis…that is bad.”
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis is essentially a worse version of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, he says, and is linked with heart attack, stroke, cancer, and liver failure.“All this fat in the liver is merely a reflection of what else is happening in the body,” says Bhamidimarri.
Bhamidimarri isn’t surprised by the link between sugary drinks and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease since the sugars in those drinks add a lot of extra calories. “At the end of the day, it all adds up to the amount of calories you’re consuming,” he says. “Even in fresh juices, you’re drinking 300 to 500 calories in a single drink.”
Luckily, it’s possible to recover from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The liver is one of the organs in the body that has the highest capacity to regenerate, says Bhamidimarri, noting that when patients change their dietary and lifestyle habits, the fat in the liver, the inflammation, and the scar tissue regresses.
Carey agrees that it’s possible to recover from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease with better diet and exercise, and notes that the Mediterranean diet in particular has been shown to reduce fat in the liver.
Unfortunately for soda fans, Bhamidimarri recommends cutting way back on sugary drinks for liver health: “You can live without it.”
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