The Worst Types of Drinks for Your Liver, According to Science
Your liver sucks. Not just your liver, but everyone's liver sucks—like a vacuum cleaner. You can think of the liver as a massive Dyson for your bloodstream. The largest solid organ in the body and, arguably the most complex, your liver performs billions of vital tasks during your lifetime and one of the most important is filtering the poisons from your bloodstream. Everything you absorb through your gastrointestinal tract is processed and filtered through the liver. Nearly every ounce of blood in your body passes through; the liver breaks down and cleans chemicals, nutrients, drugs, alcohol, and other toxins in the blood before they flow throughout your body.
If it didn't perform that function optimally, your body would be flooded with toxins—and what you drink can have a huge effect. Here are the worst types of drinks for your liver and how they can be harmful, and for even more drinking tips, be sure to read up on our list of 108 Most Popular Sodas Ranked by How Toxic They Are.
No surprise there. Most people understand that heavy drinking can cause alcoholic cirrhosis, where healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue and eventually may lead to death or a lifesaving liver transplant.
But the damage doesn't happen overnight. There are precursor stages that drinkers go through over time, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. The main ones are a build-up of fat inside the liver cells (called fatty liver) and acute inflammation (called alcoholic hepatitis) that leads to the death of liver cells and scarring. Cirrhosis is the profoundly dangerous end stage of what started as fatty liver disease. At that point, the liver becomes so scarred it's like a clogged vacuum—blood can't flow through it.
"Almost anyone who heavily drinks even after one night will develop some degree of fatty liver, fat droplets in the liver that cause the liver not to function too well," says gastroenterology specialist Rockford Yapp, MD, affiliated with Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines heavy drinking as 15 drinks or more per week for men and 8 drinks or more weekly for women.
The good news is fatty liver is reversible; if you stop drinking, the fat in the liver slowly goes away. But alcoholic beverages aren't the only worst drinks for your liver. There are many others that can do harm, too.
Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
If you're a health nut, you are likely well aware that sugar-sweetened beverages are the single biggest factor contributing to obesity. But did you know that sodas, juices, sports drinks, lemonade, and sweet tea can add fat deposits to your liver? Too much sugar and high fructose corn syrup from these sweet beverages are converted into fat by the liver. That excess fat then is stored in liver cells, a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which affects 30% of U.S. adults, according to the Journal of Hepatology. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine calls NAFLD "the major concern of public health worldwide."
"Out of all the sugary foods, drinking sugary soda is the worst when it comes to harming your liver," says Waqas Mahmood, MD, a physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. "Drinking soda on a regular basis is also strongly linked to high blood sugar level, obesity, heart diseases, gout, dementia, dental issues, diabetes, and even cancer as per various studies."
In fact, obesity and type 2 diabetes are thought to also be common causes of fatty infiltration of the liver, according to the American College of Gastroenterology, which estimates that about two-thirds of obese adults and half of obese children have fatty liver.
Related: The Worst Fountain Drinks to Never Order.
What about coffee?
That depends on your definition of a cup of joe. Coffee can actually be helpful to your liver. Regular coffee is loaded with catechins, a type of antioxidant also found in green tea, and other helpful polyphenols. Research suggests that coffee may protect against certain forms of cancer, including liver cancer. For example, a meta-analysis in the journal Gastroenterology found that drinking 2 extra cups of coffee a day was associated with a 43% reduced risk of liver cancer.
But if you take your coffee very sweet, your morning cup may do as much harm as a can of soda. Some coffee drinks are more like sugary soft drinks with a tiny shot of coffee, says Trista Best, MPH, RD, at Balance One Supplements. You'll protect your liver by avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages and keeping fattening processed foods to a minimum.
The consensus among experts and researchers is to allow the liver to do its amazing detoxifying job and not punish the organ with regular doses of toxic liquids like booze and soda.
For more life-changing nutrition advice, read Bad Eating Habits You Should Stop Immediately.