A simple dietary switch can benefit liver health

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Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine and Richmond VA Medical Center have found that just one meatless meal could significantly lower harmful ammonia levels in people with advanced liver disease.

The study, a small clinical trial involving adults with cirrhosis—a permanent liver damage often caused by long-term conditions such as hepatitis and chronic alcoholism—focused on the effects of replacing one regular meal with a vegetarian option.

Cirrhosis patients typically experience high ammonia levels, which can lead to a type of cognitive decline known as hepatic encephalopathy. This condition is characterized by confusion, delirium, and can be fatal if not properly managed.

Traditionally, ammonia is produced by bacteria in the gut during food digestion and is processed in the liver.

However, for those with cirrhosis, the liver’s ability to filter out this ammonia is compromised, allowing it to accumulate to dangerous levels and potentially reach the brain.

The trial explored whether a single meal without meat could reduce the amount of ammonia produced. Participants in the study, who normally followed a Western diet rich in meats, were divided into three groups.

Each group was assigned to consume one of three different types of burgers: a traditional meat burger, a vegan burger made with a meat substitute, and a vegetarian burger made from beans.

All burgers were paired with low-fat potato chips and a whole-grain bun, with no additional toppings or condiments allowed.

Results showed a noticeable difference in ammonia levels shortly after the meal. Those who consumed the meat burger exhibited higher levels of amino acids linked to ammonia production and hepatic encephalopathy, compared to those who ate the meatless options.

This suggests that even a single vegetarian meal can reduce the risk of ammonia-related health complications in cirrhosis patients.

Jasmohan Bajaj, M.D., a gastroenterologist involved in the study, emphasized the potential of such dietary changes.

“It was exciting to see that even small changes in your diet, like having one meal without meat once in a while, could benefit your liver by lowering harmful ammonia levels,” Bajaj commented.

He highlighted the need for further research to confirm if these dietary adjustments could also prevent cognitive problems and slow down the progression of liver disease.

This finding is particularly relevant as it presents a practical, manageable change for patients who may find it challenging to undertake significant long-term dietary adjustments.

The simplicity of substituting a meat meal with a vegetarian option could offer a feasible strategy for those struggling with cirrhosis, providing them with an alternative approach to managing their condition.

The study’s preliminary results, published in the journal Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology, suggest that healthcare providers might consider recommending such dietary modifications to cirrhosis patients as part of their treatment plan.

Given the significant role that diet plays in managing cirrhosis and its complications, this research could pave the way for new, accessible interventions aimed at improving the lives of those affected by this serious condition.

If you care about liver health, please read studies about a diet that can treat fatty liver disease and obesity, and coffee drinkers may halve their risk of liver cancer.

For more information about liver health, please see recent studies that anti-inflammatory diet could help prevent fatty liver disease, and results showing vitamin D could help prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The research findings can be found in Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology.

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