New research from Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research shows that a Western diet is associated with an increased risk of liver disease in teenagers.
The research findings have been published in the latest edition of prestigious international journal The American Journal of Gastroenterology.
Leader of Nutrition studies at the Institute, Professor Wendy Oddy, said the study looked at dietary patterns and liver ultrasounds of almost 1000 teenagers from the long-term Raine Study.
“We found that a Western style of diet was associated with an increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) at 17 years of age and a healthy diet was protective, particularly in obese adolescents,” said Professor Oddy.
NAFLD is a very common condition that can progress to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure in a small proportion of individuals. In rare cases, people may require liver transplantation.
The study results show that 15 per cent of adolescents had NAFLD. More than half of those with NAFLD were overweight or obese.
“Looking at the sub-group of obese 17 year olds, a healthy diet was significantly associated with a reduced risk of NAFLD while there was a strong trend toward the Western diet increasing the risk of NAFLD,” said Professor Oddy.
“We found a specific association between high intake of sugary soft drinks and NAFLD, which is likely to be due to the large amounts of sugars such as fructose.”
A “Western” diet is characterised by a high intake of takeaway foods, red meat, confectionary, soft drinks, processed, fried and refined foods.
These diets tend to be higher in total fat, saturated fat, refined sugar and sodium. A “healthy” pattern is a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fish. It tends to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, folate and fibre.
Dietary information was collected through food frequency questionnaires when the study participants were 14 years of age, with liver ultrasonography conducted at the 17-year follow-up. Information on alcohol intake was also collected.
Professor Oddy said efforts to reduce obesity in childhood and adolescence may be important for preventing NAFLD.
“As NAFLD is associated with obesity and diabetes and with the rise in the prevalence of these in the past two decades, NAFLD is now the leading cause of liver injury,” said Professor Oddy.
“As dietary patterns are formed during childhood and carried through to adulthood, the Western diet has a potential to cause long term liver damage.”
The findings support previous results in the Raine Study linking the Western diet with cardiometabolic risk.