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Fatty Liver—and Your Kids


George Michael's death at age 53 was a shock to the world. People were shocked again when it was released earlier this week that it appeared he had died of natural causes - heart disease and fatty liver. Even more shocking than that? Your children may be suffering from one of those conditions.

"We are seeing an uptick in the number of pediatric fatty liver cases," says Daniel Jackson, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist with University of Utah Health Care. "It's happening as we see the rates of obesity in children rise due to diet and lifestyle issues."

While the condition is called "fatty liver," an excess of fat in the diet is not the cause. Rather, it is an excess of sugar and simple carbohydrates that is the problem. "All of that sugar has to be processed by the liver - that's its job," says Jackson. "Your liver tries to process it, but it's coming in so fast it can't get it out in time."

That extra sugar in the liver creates fatty acids that build up in the liver faster than the liver can pump them out so it stores them. This causes a fatty liver over time. Fatty acids are toxic to the liver cells and can cause inflammation or hepatitis and over time scars in the liver or cirrhosis. This is fatty liver disease. But while the damage is being done the patient may not even be aware of it. It may take a secondary complication before fatty liver is diagnosed. "It can be very sneaky," says Jackson. "We may not know what is happening until we see signs of hepatitis or cirrhosis. We are now seeing both of those conditions in the teenage years."

Cutting the amount of sugar in the diet is the best way to avoid fatty liver disease. Food with added sugar and simple carbohydrates should only be eaten in moderation. Instead of giving your child white bread, other foods with white flour, white rice, corn or potatos, choose complex carbohydrates like whole grains vegetables and moderate fruits. . Also, cut out the soda and avoid too much juice. "You might as well be giving your children cigarettes," says Jackson. "The health impacts can be as severe."

In addition to picking the right carbohydrates you should make sure they are a component of a balanced diet. Carbohydrates should only make up a fourth of your plate at each meal. The rest of your plate should have vegetables and protein like meat or beans. "By eating carbohydrates along with other foods, the body has more time to process the sugars in the foods," says Jackson.

When you eat can also have an impact. Spacing out meals gives the time to adequately process foods. If you are constantly eating, the body doesn't have time to reset itself. "After you eat, your levels of insulin go up," says Jackson. "If those levels stay high, your body isn't burning fat, but instead is just trying to store it. You need to allow time for your insulin level to drop."

Other healthy habits like exercise can help kids avoid fatty liver as well. "If you are treating your body well, it will treat you well," says Jackson. "That includes your liver."