Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) can be seriously bad news. This condition, in which fat builds up in your liver, can be harmless, or it could escalate to become a serious health risk. The foods and beverages that you consume can play a significant part in leaving your liver in danger or helping you keep this vital organ healthy. Now, new research finds that eating red meat is linked with an increased risk of developing NAFLD.
In the study, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at data from around 78,000 women over a period of two decades. They found that those who’d eaten one serving or less of red meat per week were significantly less likely to get NAFLD than those who ate more, and those who ate red meat every day (or multiple times per day) had the greatest risk.
Moreover, researchers observed these effects for processed and unprocessed meat alike. Still, while going for whole foods may not help you escape the liver risks, if you’re going to have red meat anyway, then you’re better off choosing the unprocessed cut. Processed foods come with a whole other slew of health dangers, including weakening your immune system and increasing your chance of developing a range of chronic diseases.
“Future studies are needed to truly assess the role that red meat and red processed meat plays in NAFLD,” Kristin Kirkpatrick MS, RDN, author of Skinny Liver and registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, commented on the study in an interview with Eat This, Not That! “For now, eat more plants, less refined carbohydrates, sugar, and processed foods, and enjoy red meat the same way you would a cookie—as a once-in-a-while treat.”
It’s worth making the swap wherever you can. After all, people with NAFLD are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, among other health issues, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Typically, NAFLD has few symptoms if any, so if you’re concerned, you’ll probably have to ask your doctor. But a couple of signs that you can look out for are fatigue and pain in the upper right side of your abdomen.
For some good substitutes for red meat, check out The Best Plant-Based Fast-Food Items, Ranked By a Dietitian.