February is American Heart Month, a great time to really start being good to one of the most vital organs in your body—your heart. But while learning to eat healthier heart-wise, it’s also good to consider foods that can keep your liver healthy.
After all, your liver is vital to life. It is by far the most complicated organ in the body, involved in over 200 vital biological reactions, including manufacturing and synthesizing a wide range of hormones, clotting factors, cholesterol, and other proteins. Since it is such a complex organ, it has been nearly impossible to replicate. Today, there are pacemakers and defibrillators for failing hearts, but there is still no artificial liver that can be implanted.
As a hepatologist (a liver doctor), too often, I witness the pain and suffering of patients with fatty liver disease—often due to poor eating habits. It’s my mission in life to stop people from getting to that irreversible point where nothing more can be done to save a liver—and a life. That starts with healthier eating.
Here are some of the best foods for your heart, your liver—and your waistline.
Fruits. Berries are full of heart- and liver-healthy phytonutrients and soluble fiber. Add blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries to your diet for their antioxidant properties. In fact, one 2010 study found that alanine aminotransferase (ALAT) levels were reduced by 23 percent after 20 weeks. ALAT is an enzyme in the liver; elevated levels of ALAT help me identify when a person has liver damage.
Grapefruit also has powerful effects on belly fat and cholesterol (good for the heart). And its two main antioxidants, naringenin and naringin, have been found beneficial for the liver by protecting the body’s cells and reducing inflammation.
Apples have been shown to reduce belly fat, which makes them heart healthy. They also contain polyphenols, which help keep liver serum and lipid levels in check. And they contain pectin and malic acid, which are anti-inflammatory and remove toxins.
Veggies. In the veggie department, spinach is the superfood when it comes to better health. In addition to vitamins A and C, spinach contains folate (good for the heart), and antioxidants (good for the liver). Other greens, such as kale and Brussels sprouts, are also heart and liver friendly. And in one study, broccoli was even found to help prevent fat buildup in the liver in mice.
Tomatoes, which contain the antioxidant lycopene, can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease and provide a good portion of a day’s recommended potassium, which is essential for heart health and tissue repair. Tomatoes also contain chlorine and sulfur, which can detoxify the liver.
Onions contain folic acid, which is vital for liver health. They also help lower cholesterol, and they contain the flavonoid quercetin, which increases blood flow.
Beets contain manganese, which is good for the liver, and the antioxidant betalains, which repair and regenerate liver cells. Beets also contain nitrates, which help lower blood pressure, according to a study in The Journal of Nutrition.
Proteins. Protein can be a challenge for both heart and liver health. As a general rule, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 15 to 16 percent of daily calories come from protein. For most people, the problem with protein is that the sources are high in saturated fats (fats that remain solid at room temperature). These can raise levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol and lead to heart problems.
Protein is a special problem for people that already have liver disease. Once the disease is present, the liver struggles to process protein intake. Too much protein can lead to a buildup of toxins in the body while also leading to vitamin deficiencies. The key is to consider types and quantities when consuming protein.
If beef is on the menu, then look for grass-fed beef. A study in Nutrition Journal found that grass-fed meats contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the risk of heart disease.
Seafood also contains omega-3s. Look for fatty fish—salmon, sardines, tuna, and trout—which are highest in omega-3s. These improve the fat levels in liver and also reduce inflammation.
Turkey is rich in DHA omega-3 acids but remember, white meat is lower calorie than dark. And chicken is low-fat while also being high protein (26 grams in a 3 oz. breast).
There has long been a myth when it comes to eggs and heart disease. For many years, it was believed that the high cholesterol in eggs contributed to heart problems. But several studies have now dispelled that misinformation. Perhaps surprisingly, a micronutrient in eggs can also be good for the liver because it helps process fats in the organ.
Protein can also come from plant-based sources such as beans and nuts and seeds. In addition to protein, beans are loaded with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Since they help you feel fuller on fewer calories, they are the ideal food for weight loss—which is good for the heart and liver.
Some of the best nuts and seeds for the heart and liver are chia seeds and walnuts (which contain heart-healthy omega-3s), flaxseed (a high blood pressure reducer), almonds (fat and carb burners), and cashews (which contain antioxidants and helps regulate the immune system).
These are just a few of the foods that are good for two of the most vital organs in your body.