Excessive consumption of added sugar could make children more likely to develop chronic liver disease, according to a research review published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.1 Looking at more than 20 studies, researchers found a connection between non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and the type of sugars added in manufacturing processes—rather than naturally occurring sugars found in fruits, whole grains, and dairy.
Particularly detrimental is high consumption of fructose, says the review’s senior author, Johanna DiStefano, PhD, head of the Diabetes and Fibrotic Disease Unit for the Translational Genomics Research Institute.
That’s because fructose needs to be converted by the liver into glucose before it can be used as an energy source, says DiStefano, and previous research has suggested this process can change cell function and gene expression. Over time, that can have a serious impact on the liver, which is why NAFLD seemed to affect mainly adults. But with higher consumption of sugars among kids, the condition is turning into a growing problem for children.
“This is similar to type 2 diabetes, which used to be a condition that affected mainly adults, and that’s why it was called adult-onset diabetes,” she says. “But just as that’s no longer true, NAFLD is escalating in children.”
What Happens With Fatty Liver Disease
Also called metabolic-associated fatty liver disease, this condition involves a buildup of fat in the liver, which can affect:
- Blood clotting
- Higher risk of heart disease
- Development of diabetes
The initial stage is called NAFL, or non-alcoholic fatty liver, which may then progress into a more serious condition known as NASH, or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. If left untreated, the liver damage can become severe, and may lead to life-threatening conditions like cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
Although the recent study highlighted concerns for children, the problem affects adults as well, and is growing in prevalence.
In the U.S., it’s estimated that fatty liver disease not related to alcohol consumption affects up to 9% of the population, and is higher in certain groups. For example, over 80% of people with obesity have the condition. Globally, prevalence is even higher, estimated at 25%. NAFLD is the leading cause of chronic liver disease in the world.
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