Fatty liver disease in children preventable
Michael is a happy, active 11-year old boy with a serious health problem. He has pediatric nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition characterized by an abnormal buildup of fat in liver cells. This condition can lead to permanent liver damage and cirrhosis, and it’s the leading cause of liver disease among American adults.
Unfortunately, the condition today affects millions of children.
In spite of regular physical activity, Michael carries a lot of extra belly fat on his 4-foot-9, 149-pound frame. With a body mass index (BMI) of 32.2, he is considered obese. Michael’s weight likely contributed to the development of this condition (NAFLD) as it occurs in up to 35 percent of kids who are obese.
“We are seeing more kids with fatty liver disease, but we are also screening kids for this condition earlier and more frequently,” said YRMC pediatric Nurse Practitioner Jeanne Gibian. “If a child’s weight is over the 95th percentile, we check blood lipid levels and liver enzymes … We also screen kids who weigh over the 85th percentile or who have a family history of hyperlipidemia …. Preventive screening helps us catch it early.”
Diet and activity are the primary treatments, with adequate sleep and limited screen time also important.
“I give parents a simple formula for both treatment and prevention – it’s 9-5-2-1-0,” Gibian said. “Kids should get 9 hours of sleep, eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, get no more than 2 hours of screen time (TV and computer), engage in 1 hour of exercise, and drink 0 sweetened beverages each day.”
Sweetened beverages and processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup, table sugar (sucrose), concentrated fruit juice, evaporated cane juice, honey, or other forms of added sugar may be the biggest contributors to this condition in both kids and adults. Excessive amounts of saturated animal fats and cholesterol may also contribute to this condition.
Typical fast foods, including burgers, chicken nuggets, and pizza are loaded with harmful fats, as are many ‘kid’s meals’ like macaroni and cheese.
The sugars in sodas and fruit smoothies turned out to be the main culprits causing Michael’s fatty liver disease. His family began substituting unsweetened, fruity herbal iced teas and homemade flavored waters for smoothies and soda and agreed to eat sweets only on special occasions. These small changes made a significant difference in Michael’s health. In six months, Michael’s BMI dropped from 32.2 to 29; he is now getting closer to a healthy weight. His liver enzymes are now almost normal.
Most important, Michael and his family discovered what at first seemed impossible is now part of their everyday routine, something they can all celebrate.
For healthy beverage and cooking ideas, view the videos for YRMC’s Your Healthy kitchen show at www.yrmc.org/healthconnect/your-healthy-kitchen.