Fatty liver disease is a common liver complaint in Western countries. It affects about one in every ten people. It is caused by a build-up of fats in the liver, which replace healthy tissue and trigger enlargement of the rest of the liver cells. In some cases, fatty liver disease can damage the organ and lead to serious complications such as cirrhosis (scarring).

The Liver

The main functions of the liver are to remove toxins and process food nutrients.


In most cases, fatty liver disease does not cause any symptoms. Symptoms only tend to develop once fats account for about 10 per cent of the liver’s weight. The most common symptom is mild abdominal discomfort. An inflamed liver may cause symptoms including fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the yes and skin) and persistent fever.

Common risk factors

Some people are at higher risk of fatty liver disease. Known risk factors include:
Obesity (about 2 in every 10 obese people have the condition)
High fat diet, especially diets that are high in saturated fats
Lack of exercise
High alcohol intake
Insulin resistance.

Rarely, other factors can cause fatty liver disease. These may include:
Some prescription drugs such as corticosteroids or tetracylines
Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)
High blood cholesterol
Polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Two types of fatty liver disease

The two main types of fatty liver disease include:

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – this is referred to as ‘fatty liver’ and is the most common type. NAFLD does not lead to complications and is commonly treated with lifestyle changes

Non-alcoholic steatorrhoeic hepatitis (NASH) – without medical treatment, some patients with this type of fatty liver disease are at risk of serious complications including liver cirrhosis. The cells of the liver are gradually replaced by scar tissue, which hampers liver function. Cirrhosis is one of the most common causes of liver failure and may be life threatening. The risk of NASH is increased if the person has another health condition that compromises liver function, such as alcoholism, hepatitis C or hepatitis B.


If you are overweight, begin a weight management program that aims at gradual loss of around 0.25 to 0.5kg per week. You may need to lose 5% to 10% of body weight.
Exercise daily. You might try taking a half an hour walk.
If you have diabetes, ensure it is well managed. Keep your blood glucose levels below 8mmol/L.
Avoid alcohol.
Eat a healthy diet. Contrary to popular opinion, no particular diet is liver cleansing, but a healthy one greatly aids wellbeing.
Avoid foods which are high in fat, especially saturated fat.
Avoid having a high glycaemic load.