The liver is responsible for over 500 bodily functions, including storing glucose, regulating blood clotting, and more—but its main job is blood filtration. More specifically, it processes blood from the digestive tract and rids it of harmful substances (think: alcohol, drugs, and other toxins), readying it for the rest of the body to use. “The liver is our body’s natural detoxifying system,” explains Kristen Smith, M.S., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The organ also makes cholesterol when the body needs it and removes cholesterol when there’s too much, adds Stephanie Nelson, M.S., R.D., nutrition expert and nutrition scientist at MyFitnessPal. “It’s also involved in the metabolism of all three macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat,” she says. Lastly, the liver produces bile, which aids in the digestion of fats.
In general, a balanced diet of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein should keep your liver in shape, says Smith. And while it's tempting to try a restrictive “cleanse” or “detox” to improve it, “it’s not necessary and won’t be beneficial,” she warns.
You can, however, limit—within reason—foods high in added sugar and saturated fats, like soda, sweets, fatty cuts of meat, and butter, all of which can degrade liver function over time, Nelson explains. With that being said, no single food alone will boost liver function, but a combination of the nutrient-dense ones on this list certainly won't hurt it.
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Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, contain vital phytonutrients—including flavonoids, carotenoids, sulforaphane, and indoles—to help your liver neutralize chemicals, pesticides, drugs, and carcinogens.
A 2020 study on mice published in Hepatology specifically found that indole, a natural compound found in gut bacteria and the aforementioned veggies, can prevent and improve fatty liver disease—a condition that indicates an excess intake of saturated fats over time, therein inhibiting liver function.
A separate 2017 study published in Journal of Functional Foods found that broccoli can aid in the liver's detoxification process and prevent fatty liver in mice.
Dark leafy greens
"Consuming leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, may help decrease your risk of certain types of liver disease," says Smith. Several studies, she adds, have found that consuming leafy greens regularly boosts those chances.
Seaweed is rich in antioxidants, which is beneficial to those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). In fact, a 2020 study published in Liver International examined its effects on a large adult population with NAFLD and found that seaweed consumption was negatively associated with the disease, especially in non-obese participants.
Coffee—without added sugars or cream, of course—may benefit those who already have liver disease "by slowing the growth of scar tissue involved in fibrosis, which can lead to additional worsened liver disease and conditions," says Smith.
Research has demonstrated that the beverage can lower liver enzymes, suggesting reduced inflammation in the liver, adds Debi Zvi, R.D., a certified diabetes educator and product director at Upward Farms.
"Nuts, such as almonds, are high in vitamin E and unsaturated fats, which may help the liver remove unwanted cholesterol from the body," says Smith. Nuts have also been associated with a reduced risk of NAFLD, adds nutrition expert for Juice Plus+, Melissa Rifkin, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
Sprouted seeds and microgreens
Sprouted seeds and microgreens, such as microbroccoli, are high in sulforaphane, a compound that has been found to combat fatty liver disease.
One of the oldest medicinal foods on the planet, garlic contains an active sulfur-based compound called allicin, which acts as a critical supporter of liver detoxification by assisting with the removal of food additives and the like. Garlic has also been documented to aid in weight loss in those with NAFLD, says Rifkin.
Onions, shallots, and leeks
A 2018 study on mice with various diets found that regular consumption of onion can prevent NAFLD, even in the presence of other risk factors such as obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and high fat and sugar intakes.
Eggs provide some of the highest quality protein, containing all eight essential amino acids, cholesterol, and the essential nutrient choline. Research shows choline deficiency can lead to NAFLD, as it fuels some of the liver's filtration processes, as well as the metabolism.
Two phytonutrients found in artichokes, cynarin and silymarin, have been shown to nourish the liver. Research shows that silymarin specifically can reduce oxidative stress and consequent cell damage, thereby protecting liver cells from damage.
Animal studies have consistently suggested that mushrooms can alleviate liver disease. More research on humans is warranted, but a 2020 study on Chinese adults found higher mushroom intake to be significantly associated with lower prevalence of NAFLD.
Foods rich in the antioxidant polyphenols—such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and the like—may help reduce the risk of NAFLD, says Smith. Research shows that the polyphenols in these berries can improve metabolic disorders, which therein protects the liver and can even fight liver cancer.
"Beetroot can be consumed whole or in juice form and contains nitrates and antioxidants that reduce cell damage and inflammation," which positively impacts the liver, Rifkin says.
Kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and other fermented foods
Foods high in probiotics can help the liver break down cholesterol, explains Nelson. "This is because probiotics need to survive bile acids in the stomach in order to make it to your intestines to do their job," she continues. "To keep bile from breaking them down, probiotics actually break down bile. Cholesterol is used to make bile, so the more bile broken down by probiotics, the more the liver needs to synthesize bile by using cholesterol. This lowers cholesterol in the body if there is too much."
Probiotic-rich foods are fermented or cultured, and those include kimchi—a traditional Korean dish made of fermented cabbage—sauerkraut, and miso.
Like kimchi, yogurt is a probiotic-packed food that can help the liver break down cholesterol, lowering the risk of NAFLD. In fact, research has shown that yogurt consumption decreased cholesterol in patients with type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.
A 2020 randomized control trial found that after 12 weeks of flaxseed dietary intervention, fatty liver was significantly reduced in NAFLD patients. Flaxseeds were also associated with improved glucose and lipid metabolism and reduced inflammation.
Not only do hemp seeds provide a good mix of omega-6 and omega-3 fats, but a 2020 study found that they can also alleviate high fat diet-induced fatty liver disease by regulating inflammation and oxidative stress.
Chia seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acid, antioxidants, and fiber, and therefore, could be useful to treat NAFLD. In a 2020 study of 25 people with the condition, a daily supplement of 25 grams of milled chia was associated with a regression of the disease in 52% of participants.