Published on March 27, 2018

Sugar affects your liver as well as your waistline by Bonnie Brost

Awash in the candy and treats of Easter, you’re probably thinking more about your waistline than your liver.

Take a minute to consider just how much sugar you’re eating. For example, a 14-ounce bag of jellybeans can have 70 teaspoons or 1½ cups of sugar. Each Peep has about 2 teaspoons of sugar. A 1.5-ounce hollow milk chocolate bunny has 16 grams of total fat with eight grams being saturated fat and 29 grams of sugar or more than seven teaspoons of sugar.

While eating a diet high in sugar and fats leads to obesity, it can also cause problems with your liver. The rise in a serious condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has matched the rise in obesity, and the disease is being diagnosed earlier in life.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common form of chronic liver disease, affecting 80 to 100 million Americans. It’s most common in people in their 40s and 50s who are at high risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The condition is closely linked to obesity, especially extra belly fat. Other risk factors include insulin resistance, high blood sugar and high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood).

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease usually has no signs or symptoms before lab tests detect abnormal liver function or a scan shows an enlarged liver. The liver produces triglycerides from the foods we eat and fats and sugar can result in higher triglyceride production. If there is not a good spot to store extra triglycerides, the liver stores the fat itself and can’t function as well as it should. The liver may also develop inflammation, which can progress to cirrhosis of the liver, a severe health condition.

Making lifestyle changes to lose weight and increase exercise is the standard of care for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Eating a healthier diet and moving more is essential. Exercise improves insulin resistance and helps reduce triglycerides, lowering the risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or making it worse.

The American Heart Association recommends we limit the added sugar we eat. Added sugars are those put into foods. They include sugars and syrups added at the table and an array of sweeteners added by food manufacturers. Natural sugars are found in whole fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Women should limit added sugars to no more than six teaspoons or 24 grams a day. For men, it’s nine teaspoons or 36 grams per day. Most Americans consume 22 teaspoons of added sugar, or ½ cup, a day. The sugar in sweetened beverages, candy and desserts really add up fast.

Eating balanced meals and snacks that include some lean protein, vegetables, beans and nuts will fill us up. Adding whole fruits will add a finishing touch to satisfy our sweet tooth.

Bonnie Brost is a licensed and registered dietitian in the Wellness Program at the Essentia Health St. Mary’s Heart & Vascular Center in Duluth. Contact her at bonnie.brost@essentiahealth.org.