Liver damage is often linked with alcohol abuse, but sugary non-alcoholic drinks may also pack a toxic punch.
A new study found that consuming more than one sugar-sweetened beverage per day may increase the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
"Our study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that sugar-sweetened beverages may be linked to NAFLD and other chronic diseases including diabetes and cardiovascular disease," said lead study author Jiantao Ma, PhD, of the US Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, MA, in a press release.
NAFLD is a buildup of extra fat in the liver cells that is not caused by excessive alcohol use. NAFLD may lead to a condition that causes swelling and inflammation of the liver. Over time, that may cause scarring (cirrhosis), and even liver cancer or liver failure. NAFLD affects as many as 1 in 5 adults in the US, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
Dr. Ma and team looked at the responses from 2,634 participants who self-reported their dietary habits. The majority of subjects were white, middle-aged men and women.
Using questionnaires, participants indicated the types of sugar-sweetened beverages they consumed. These beverages included caffeinated and non-caffeinated colas, carbonated beverages with sugar, fruit punches, lemonade and other non-carbonated fruit drinks.
To measure the amount of fat in the liver, participants were then imaged using computed tomography (CT).
Dr. Ma and team categorized the participants who drank sugary drinks into three groups.
The first group included participants who drank between one serving per month to one serving per week of sugary drinks or diet soda. The second group included participants who drank between one serving per week to one serving per day. The final group included participants who drank one serving or more per day.
Dr. Ma and team found that the participants who drank one or more sugary drink per day were 61 percent more likely to develop NAFLD — compared with the participants who did not drink any sugar-sweetened beverages.
The risk of NAFLD was also 16 percent higher in the first group and 32 percent higher in the second group.
Dr. Ma and team found no link between diet soda and fatty liver disease.
"Although there is much more research to be done, sugar-sweetened beverages are a source of empty calories, and people need to be mindful of how much they are drinking, perhaps by reserving this habit for special occasions," said study author Nicola M. McKeown, PhD, a scientist at the USDA HNRCA.
This study was published June 5 in the Journal of Hepatology.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Framingham Heart Study, the Boston University School of Medicine and the US Department of Agriculture funded this research.
No conflicts of interest were disclosed.