We owe our kids more than a future full of transplants

By March 30, 2013Sugar

According to a report released this week, liver disease now affects more than six million Australians.  The doctors who commissioned the report want the taxpayer to give them more money to manage sufferers.  Fortunately we now know what causes the vast majority of liver disease and that it can be reversed simply by telling people not to eat sugar.  But I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to become the recommended treatment.

Liver diseases fall into two main groups, those caused by viruses (Hepatitis – currently afflicting about 518,000 Australians), and, accounting for the other 90 odd per cent of cases, those caused by ‘lifestyle’ (5.5 million people).

The lifestyle group is usually further divided into drinkers (who have the same symptoms but have a history of consuming  more than 2 standard drinks per day for women or 3 for men) and everybody else.  According to the report, Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease now affects 6,203 people but Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) afflicts a massive 5,538,677 Australians.  That’s a pretty big number for a disease was first identified just 30 years ago.

As the name suggests, NAFLD starts out as an accumulation of fat in the liver.  It can then progress through various disease stages and ultimately end in cirrhosis requiring a liver transplant (if you’re lucky enough to find a donor).   There are very few symptoms until the later disease stages, so most people are unaware that they have it all.

NAFLD is frequently described as the liver component of the metabolic syndrome (elevated blood fats, insulin resistance and obesity), because it’s rapid growth has paralleled the same runaway growth in each of the diseases which are a consequence of the syndrome.  More than 90% of obese people and up to 70% of people with Type II Diabetes have NAFLD.

The number of people with NAFLD is accelerating at a tremendous rate.  Even worse, the age of onset is declining rapidly.  A study published last week revealed that the number of US teenagers with the disease more than doubled in the last 20 years and now affects almost 11% of US children aged 12-19.  If those rates translate to Australia (and there’s every reason to think they might) this means the average high school classroom now contains three children suffering from chronic liver disease.  Every classroom.  Three kids.

Even though one of the liver’s functions is to make fat from any excess carbohydrates we consume, the fat is normally exported for storage in all the places that make our jeans too tight.  NAFLD starts when the liver’s ability to export fat is overwhelmed.  The excess fat remains in the liver and begins to create the human version of foie gras.  The best way to make this happen in ducks and geese is to overfeed them (by shoving a metal tube down their throat) with carbohydrates (like corn or dried figs).

Humans get a little twitchy if you reach for the tube and corn, so overfeeding us has to be accomplished with a little more finesse.  In people, all but one carbohydrate triggers an insulin response which (unfortunately for those expecting to make a bit of human foie gras) shuts down appetite and stops us eating too much.

The one carbohydrate which subverts this handy appetite control feature is fructose.  So you might expect that a bit of effort has been put into seeing if fructose (and its primary modern delivery vehicle, sugar or sucrose) might be the source of the sudden explosion in NAFLD.

And you wouldn’t be disappointed.  In the last five years research that proves that sugar is the culprit has been pouring in.  Scientists have of course shown that you can give ducks (hmm, I wonder why they chose that experimental animal) and rats NAFLD using fructose.  And a recent series of human studies have also shown that the consumption of soft drinks is strongly associated with the onset of NAFLD (and I don’t think we can blame the water or the bubbles).  But if that wasn’t enough, a pair of very recent trials from Scandinavia have put the icing on the cake.

The first trial involved feeding four groups of people four different drinks (Coke, skim milk, Diet Coke and a still mineral water).  After 6 months of this, the Coke group had massively (140%) increased liver fat (as well as significantly increased blood pressure, cholesterol and blood triglycerides).  The folks knocking back Diet Coke and water were pretty much the way they were at the start (just in case you thought it might be the water or the bubbles) and the milk drinkers had even slightly improved their liver fat status.

A similar story unfolded in the second trial.  Some very unfortunate volunteer humans were put on the path to NAFLD (27% increase in liver fat) in just three weeks by overfeeding them chocolates, pineapple juice, soft drinks and sports drinks.  The good news is that the disease was easily reversed with diet (although it did take 6 months).

The trials are done, the evidence is clear.  Fructose consumption causes NAFLD in exactly the same way that alcohol causes Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.  NAFLD’s alcoholic cousin can be usually be reversed by ensuring the patient avoids alcohol.  So are the experts demanding that GPs be told to adopt a similar practice for fructose?  Nup.

No, what they want is for the government to spend more money on, well, them.  This week’s report calls for a $6 million dollar a year program (run by the doctors who commissioned the report) to increase awareness of liver disease and a $7.5 million dollar a year community care program to help people who are suffering with liver disease.

Now I’m sure these are admirable programs and I’m sure they’ll go some way to alleviating a little bit of the suffering caused by the overwhelming epidemic of chronic liver disease.  But when the cause is clear and the solution even clearer, we can do much better than throw a bit of cash at some liver doctors.

NAFLD currently has at least a quarter of the population on an expressway to a liver transplant (if the rest of the metabolic syndrome doesn’t get us first).  Yet it can be easily and effectively reversed with a pathetically simple piece of advice – don’t eat sugar.  Those charged with keeping us well, need to immediately start giving that advice rather than lobbying for a better ambulance  to park at the bottom of the cliff.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • hithaeglir says:

    Hi David

    I actually fully agree with the thrust of your article and was more than surprised to see such a high figure for NAFLD in the Australian population. Of course I read the report pointed to by your link to confirm this.

    However, there is a glaring error in your comments.

    You said:

    “If those rates translate to Australia (and there’s every reason to think they might) this means the average high school classroom now contains three children suffering from chronic liver disease. Every classroom. Three kids.

    Your statement is not factual. If you read page 10 of the GESA report referred to in the link you provided you will find that the 2012 NAFLD rate for children 10 -19 is actually only 5%, which is less than half of the 11% you have implied. This is not a trivial error.

    To be taken seriously by the “establishment” it is absolutely essential to embrace accuracy in reporting.
    Sensationalization and exaggeration do not serve any purpose in the cause of overturning the conventional health dogma.
    To be taken seriously the information and comments need to be absolutely accurate.

  • The numbers used by Deloitte are based on this 2009 study: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/cggr/2011/831536/ which uses the numbers in this 2007 study of 288 Japanese school children: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00535-009-0198-4. I felt the 2010 data(which I referenced) from 12,714 US teenagers was more likely to reflect the current state of play in Australia.

  • I’ve now updated the text with a link to a story about NAFLD results from the Raine Study, an ongoing Australian birth cohort study of 1,170 West Australian children. In 2011 the authors reported NAFLD in those children of 12.8%. Here’s the the study on pubmed: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21374659

  • kate says:

    You’re saying that fructose consumption causes NAFLD but the two studies you site don’t and aren’t able to differentiate between sugar (sucrose) intake and fructose intake,(yes I know fructose is a component of sucrose) so surely your conclusion should just be that sugar intake is linked with NAFLD not fructose specifically? Not sure why in this instance you blame fructose and not sucrose.

  • Kate,

    This is from the discussion section of the first study I mention:

    “Most negative health effects of sucrose-sweetened beverages have been linked to the content of fast-absorbable fructose (2, 5, 20, 21, 24). Fructose may directly enhance de novo lipogenesis, triglyceride production, and fat accumulation in the liver, and may subsequently increase circulating triglyceride and cholesterol concentrations (1, 25, 26). “

  • emmy says:

    My husband was diagnosed a few years back with NAFLD by a liver specialist. At this time he was pre-diabetic and obese. He asked the specialist what he should do and the response was a shrug and “lose a few kilos”. That was the extent of the advice.
    My husband decided that the nightly junk food had to go. No more lollies, chocolate and soft drink. This helped a lot, for a while. He went through a few cycles of losing weight then being tempted back to the junk food, gaining a bit of weight back and starting again. Last year we came across ‘Big Fat Lies’ and finally realised how addicted to sugar we were. It was obvious that my husband was addicted. Less obvious for me because I was into ‘healthy’ eating, but that often involved having just another handful of sultanas or just another half glass of juice (and another and so on). So we ditched all the sugar except for a couple of pieces of fruit each day. My husband lost the rest of the weight he needed to lose and recent blood tests showed everything is normal. No more fatty liver or pre-diabetes. I wasn’t particularly aiming to lose weight but 4-5kg came off quite easily. Probably the best thing is that we are no longer slaves to our food and I think we enjoy our food more than we ever did when it was driven by compulsion.
    Some of our friends and relatives don’t quite understand why we can’t just have a little bit of sugar (you know, in moderation) so we are still trying to help them understand this is very much like alcoholism. You wouldn’t suggest to an alcoholic that they only drink in moderation.
    I do worry about this generation of children. There’s a lot of talk about childhood obesity, but as far as I can tell most people just don’t seem to get it. I see parents who let their children subsist on junk, classroom teachers who use lollipops as rewards, a school canteen which actively promotes flavoured milk because the milk company gave them a free fridge, a church handing out lollies to the kids a week after Easter for no discernible reason etc. I think people think a little bit won’t hurt, but all the ‘little bits’ add up to a whole lot. I get really tired of having to defend my children against the onslaught of sugar from a society that just doesn’t seem to get the seriousness of the problems we are facing. We are going to end up with a lot of sick young adults, teenagers and children if we keep on going the way we are.

  • Good article, I read it with interest, thanks.

    All the best Jan

  • jism singh says:

    Great post about this. I’m surprised to see someone so educated in the matter. I am sure my visitors will find that very useful.
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  • Karrie says:

    My mother is currently in hospital for a flare up of her NASH (the badder brother of NAFLD). I’ve been doing some research and have found two reports (so far), one from the World Gastroenterology Organisation 2012, recommending avoiding fructose and trans-fats as part of the most significant treatment for this condition (surprise surprise). They did also recommend (the WGO) increasing omega 3/ omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet, but having just read Big Fat Lies, I believe this would be making a bad situation even worse.
    I was horrified to learn that these conditions were becoming so prevalent, even in children and will be doing everything I can to keep my own kids safe. Thank you for your books and a different perspective to the accepted “healthy” diet.

  • Kaye Chalmers Gooey says:

    Great reading your comments Emmy. Yes, friends can be hard to convince about ditching all sugar even though they say you look great and what are you doing!

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