New research, presented at the International Liver Congress, suggests that animal protein (found in meat) is linked to the accumulation of fat in the liver, which could lead onto scarring and finally cirrhosis. However, fructose (a sugar found naturally in fruit and vegetables) may not be as harmful as previously thought.
Dutch researchers presented their findings from an epidemiological (population-based) study of just under 3500 people. Known as the Rotterdam Study, this on-going research includes 30% of people who are of healthy weight and 70% of people who are overweight, with an average age of 71.
Excess fat accumulation in the liver was found in over a third of the participants. The researchers found that those participants who consumed the most animal protein compared to total protein overall had a significantly higher chance of accumulating fat in their liver.
This finding was most evident in people who are overweight.
Oddly, those participants who consumed a lot of fructose did not have any significant fat in their liver, which is contrary to current scientific thinking.
What do we think?
This research was conducted on what appears to be an elderly population, where the average age was 71. Whether this same finding can be translated to a younger population is difficult to tell, because we know that nutritional requirements change during our life cycle.
However, what is interesting is that fructose and other simple sugars did not appear to have any correlation with fatty liver disease, quite the reverse. It suggests that many more studies into this area are needed to isolate the precise causes of this potentially dangerous condition.
Fatty liver disease, like obesity and diabetes, is rapidly becoming a global health catastrophe, and any strategy that can be used to prevent its onset should be explored. In the meantime, like many studies, it does suggest that a healthy Mediterranean style diet that is high in plant food and lower in animal protein and animal fat could benefit more than just our hearts.
If it is true that fructose does not cause unhealthy fat accumulation in our liver, then a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, with a small amount of dairy and animal protein and fat is one we should encourage and promote.
However, this is only a population study, it suggests interesting pathways for further research. It does not prove that eating meat leads to liver disease, so we need to ensure that no crazy conclusions are made quite yet.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.