Fatty liver disease, which is also called simply “fatty liver,” is a liver condition in which large fat deposits accumulate within the liver. It’s a manifestation of a larger-scale syndrome known as “steatosis,” in which the body accumulates larger amounts of fat than normal within cells. The liver is particularly prone to this syndrome. Fatty liver may also be a symptom or an early stage of serious liver conditions, but it is not considered dangerous in itself. It’s a cause for medical concern mainly because it may be an early sign of something else that is dangerous.


Fatty liver disease usually has no overt symptoms and is discovered as a result of blood tests followed up on by medical imaging such as ultrasound scanning. Fatty liver usually produces elevation in key liver enzymes which reveal themselves in blood tests, and an examination of the liver using imaging technology is a good follow-up. When symptoms of fatty liver do appear, they can include loss of appetite and weight loss, fatigue, chronic dull pain in the area of the liver. When these symptoms occur along with other indications of fatty liver, the condition is of greater concern as it may indicate the presence of a more serious liver condition.

Normally, the tests that reveal fatty liver are taken to diagnose something else, and the presence of fatty liver disease is discovered by accident, as it were. If fatty liver is found, the next step in the diagnostic procedure is to distinguish between alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

The most common single cause of fatty liver disease, as with other liver illnesses, is excessive alcohol consumption. For that reason, once the disease is found, the next step is an assessment to confirm or rule out alcohol abuse as a cause. If it’s found that the patient is not an alcohol abuser (takes no more than two drinks a day), then a diagnosis of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (or NAFLD) is appropriate. NAFLD is of course a catch-all term for fatty liver disease caused by something other than alcohol abuse. It then becomes important, given that alcohol is NOT causing the disorder, to figure out what exactly IS.

Causes of fatty liver disease other than alcohol can include obesity, diabetes, hepatitis (a swollen or enlarged condition of the liver which is often, but not always, due to a viral infection), and early stages of cirrhosis of the liver.


The reason it’s important to identify the correct cause of fatty liver disease (or one of the reasons) is because fatty liver disease is rarely treated directly. Rather, treatment is applied to the underlying cause, which means the underlying cause needs to be identified.

Obviously, if the cause is alcohol abuse the treatment is cessation of drinking, with professional guidance and help if the abuse takes the form of alcohol addiction. If the cause is obesity, gradual weight loss is indicated. (Too-sudden weight loss is seldom sustained, so a more gradual program is called for instead.) If the cause is an underlying disease such as hepatitis or diabetes, the disease is treated appropriately. In almost all cases, fatty liver disease is reversible and when the causing condition is corrected, the fatty globules in the liver should reduce in size and ultimately disappear.

Fatty Liver Disease And Diet

Many of the conditions causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can be treated by changes in diet. Besides reduction in weight if obesity is a factor, dietary treatment of fatty liver disease usually calls for a high-fiber, low-fat diet, which is also a good treatment for obesity and a prescription for diabetes, the latter also calling for reduction in processed sugar and starches. Such a diet is also a good general prescription for reducing the risk of many other diseases, and calls for a diet with lots of fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes, and reduced intake of meat and dairy products.


On rare occasions, fatty liver disease can give rise to complications which may be a serious concern. A worst-case complication is cancer of the liver (hepatocellular carcinoma), which is developed by approximately ten percent of patients with alcoholic fatty liver disease, and there is some indication for a positive association with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as well.

Some doctors believe that fatty liver disease increases the risk of heart and cardiovascular illness; however, this is intrinsically difficult to verify. The problem is that many of the common causes of fatty liver disease, including obesity, diabetes, and alcohol abuse, also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Is a statistical connection between fatty liver and cardiovascular disease indicative of a direct causal relationship, or is it simply that many of the causes of one condition also cause the other? It’s difficult to say; however, since treatment of fatty liver disease calls for treating the underlying condition in any case, arguably it makes little practical difference one way or the other.

Fatty Liver Disease And Serious Liver Diseases

In many cases, fatty liver disease is an early indicator of, or else caused by, more serious liver diseases. These include fibrosis of the liver, cirrhosis of the liver, infectious hepatitis, and cancer of the liver. These illnesses call for close monitoring and aggressive treatment, and if they progress far enough may require a liver transplant. For this reason, fatty liver disease, although not dangerous in itself, should always be taken seriously and approached as a possible sign of serious health problems. If the problem can be treated and eliminated while still manifesting as nothing more serious than globules of fat in the liver, a lot of trouble can be headed off before it arises.

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