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You may have heard the term “fatty liver disease.” Many patients are unaware of the details of the condition, even though it’s very common and affects more than 3 million people a year in the U.S. alone.

In short, fatty liver disease is the buildup of excessive fat deposits in the liver, which leads to inflammation, and occasionally long-term scarring (also known as cirrhosis of the liver). Two different processes contribute to fatty liver disease: alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Although they are different conditions, both can be serious if left untreated, and both stem from different lifestyle choices.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease

The big difference between alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is that alcoholic liver disease, or ALD, is caused by excessive alcohol consumption, rather than diet. Patients with early-stage ALD can usually reverse the damage by stopping all alcohol consumption. Patients who continue to drink alcohol will experience worsening symptoms like severe abdominal pain, fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites), increased risk of infections, cirrhosis or liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), and can develop additional serious health issues.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – or NAFLD – shares the same symptoms as ALD, but alcohol does not play a major part in its development. NAFLD is linked to obesity, high blood sugar and high levels of fat. Those with Type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of developing this disease. Alcohol consumption can hasten the disease’s progression.

NAFLD can affect any age group, but it is most common in seniors and people who are overweight. Just as with ALD, patients with untreated NAFLD can develop more serious health problems, like cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

A growing number of cases

The number of patients with NAFLD has been growing in the U.S. and experts attribute the increase to overeating and sedentary lifestyles. Some early signs of fatty liver disease are abnormal liver function tests, abnormally low LDL cholesterol levels or low platelet counts.

The best way to prevent NAFLD is to eat healthy. The disease stems from lack of exercise and excessive calorie intake, so a good diet and active lifestyle is crucial for preventing it.

In addition, more young adults ages 25 to 34 are dying from alcohol-related cirrhosis due to new drinking trends, such as regularly drinking strong craft beers and the popularity of cocktails with Sunday brunch. As a result, many millennials are consuming excessive amounts of alcohol without realizing the consequences.

The biggest take-home point with alcohol consumption is quantifying your intake. Different people have different glass sizes/measurements that may result in excessive alcohol consumption. One glass of wine may be 5 ounces for one person and 10 ounces for another. In general, men should not consume more than four standardized drinks a week, and women should not consume more than about three standardized drinks a week. For reference, standardized drinks include a 5 ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer or 1-ounce shot of liquor.

Talk to your doctor about fatty liver disease

To prevent all types of fatty liver disease, you should talk to your doctor about your lifestyle choices. A physician will be able to give you advice on diet and alcohol consumption to best help you avoid these diseases.
If you believe you may have developed fatty liver disease, ask your doctor about the right treatment options for you. It’s important to tackle the disease head-on before it progresses into something worse.

UCF Health offers care for liver diseases from its team of hepatology and gastroenterology specialists.

Weekly Health Tips are brought to you by UCF Health, the College of Medicine’s physician practice. Offering primary and specialty care under one roof, UCF Health treats patients age 16 and up in primary care and age 18 and up for specialty care. Most major insurance plans are accepted. Two locations are now open: the original in East Orlando at Quadrangle and University boulevards just blocks from the main UCF campus, and the newest one in Medical City at Narcoossee Road and Tavistock Lakes Boulevard. Information for both facilities can be found at, or call (407) 266-DOCS to schedule an appointment.

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