Diet therapy

Love your liver

We can’t live well without a functioning liver and yet it is just another part of us that we probably never think about until something goes wrong…right?

The liver can be affected by a number of diseases such as obesity, fatty liver disease, viruses such as Hepatitis A, B and C that, if left untreated or unmanaged, can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and liver cancer.

This amazing organ carries out around 500 bodily functions every day, handling more than 13% of your entire body’s blood supply.

What does our liver look like?

The Liver is a large triangular shaped organ, located in the middle right abdomen, just below the diaphragm and behind the ribs, extending across the midline to the left side of our body.

It weights around 1.5kg and has two blood supplies. The hepatic artery delivering blood from the heart and the hepatic portal vein which brings blood from the intestines.

What does the liver do?

It makes bile:

This is a yellow or green alkaline fluid containing bile salts that is concentrated in the gall bladder. When we eat, the gall bladder releases bile into the small intestine, helping to breakdown fat and neutralizing acids from the stomach. The bile acids help to activate fat soluble vitamins e.g.Vitamin D necessary to aid calcium utilization.

It aids metabolism:

The liver is important for the conversion of carbohydrate, protein and fat into energy.

Carbohydrate is stored as glucose in the liver to ensure a steady flow of energy to the body.The liver also converts fat into energy and is responsible for the regulation and synthesis of cholesterol. Protein is also broken down in the liver to amino acids and the liver can convert amino acids into glucose, fat and protein if necessary.

It aids blood clotting:

The liver helps to produce coagulation factors to promote blood clotting. Some of these clotting factors require Vitamin K. Luckily bile salts aid the intestinal absorption of this fat- soluble vitamin which is found in green leafy vegetables, fish, liver, meat, eggs and cereals.

The liver makes proteins:

Albumin-that regulates blood volume and distributes fluid around the body

Ferritin– that helps to store iron in the body

Lipoproteins– important for cholesterol transport

Acute phase proteins– responsible for the control of inflammation and infection

The liver regulates hormone levels:

Thyroid hormones– important for modulating metabolic rate

IGF-1 – important for promoting cellular growth

Angiotensinogen– the hormone that regulates sodium and potassium in the kidneys important for blood pressure control.

The liver helps detoxification

Along with the spleen, the liver breaks down old red blood cells into bilirubin and other bile pigments. If the liver fails, bilirubin accumulates resulting in a yellow appearance of the skin and eyes known as jaundice.

The liver breaks down other materials too such as poisons, drugs, alcohol and waste products to prevent toxicities.

Interesting facts about the liver

  • It can regenerate itself.As long as 25% of the healthy liver remains it can become whole again.
  • A healthy liver filters about 1.7 Litres of blood per minute
  • The liver contains 300 billion specialized cells and is the largest gland in the body
  • It produces 1 L of bile/day
  • During pregnancy the liver increases in size and weight to accommodate the changes in metabolic demands and hormonal balance of the mother
  • A healthy liver holds about two year’s supply of vitamin A
  • We all know alcohol affects the liver, but did you know that so does cigarette smoking?

Symptoms of liver failure

  • Fatigue
  • Sore tummy with nausea and vomiting
  • Bruising and bleeding more easily after injury
  • Swelling around the ankles, feet, legs and abdomen as the liver struggles to control fluid balance.
  • Lack of appetite
  • Jaundice

Are you at risk?

  • Being over- weight or obese places greater strain on the liver
  • Do you drink alcohol to excess?
  • Is your diet high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates (white bread and flour, pasta, sweet dessert’s and breakfast cereals)?
  • Ethnicity- a fatty liver is more common in Indians, Chinese, Maori and Pacific Islanders.

Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver (NAFL)

  • People with NAFL have 3 times the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and twice the risk of developing heart disease. (Coronary heart disease affects 170,000 New Zealanders causing heart attack and angina).
  • Being overweight/obese and diabetic are some of the causes of Metabolic Syndrome
  • Hepatitis C may also be a cause of liver failure
  • Diets high in processed foods and refined carbohydrate
  • Do you have a high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels?
  • Occasionally NAFL can be caused by starvation, protein malnutrition or intestinal bypass operations

Protect and value your liver

Most of us come into this world at around 3-4kgs. However, along the way we of course grow, life changes, we gather extra weight than we meant to, may experience mental stress and life factors that can unravel what began (for most people) as a near perfectly working little body.

If you are now struggling under the weight of life’s choices and/or events, then:

Get some help- see you GP for blood tests and a wellness check

If your weight is excessive and a lack of exercise is an issue, then talk to your GP about whether a Green Prescription could be right for you.

If you need help to control body weight, cholesterol, and diabetes etc then contact me for an assessment and dietary advice. I’d love to help you.

Other similar topics by Lea:

Are you an emotional eater?

Are you energy deficient?

Dietary guidelines are constantly changing are they still relevant?

Break free from fad diets

How to make the most of a plant-based diet

Are you afraid of the scales?


The liver. GI Society. Canadian Society of Intestinal Research

The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand. Liver disease. Fatty Liver

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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