ATHENS, Ga. — Consumers may want to consider their livers before grabbing those “healthy” low-fat diet foods off shelves.
Researchers at the University of Georgia have found that foods low in fat but high in sugar — like the ones marketed for low-fat diets — actually cause the body to produce more fat and result in liver damage, similar to what happens with heavy alcohol use.
In the study, three groups of rats were fed different diets over a four-week period and checked for weight, calories consumed and body fat. One group ate a diet high in both fat and sugar (what we might call an unhealthy diet), a second group was fed a diet low in fat and high in sugar (what we might call a healthy diet), and a third group ate a normal diet.
Both groups on special diets, whether low-fat/high-sugar or high-fat/high-sugar, gained weight and had more liver and body fat than those on the normal diet. For rats consuming the “dieters’ diet” (high-sugar/low-fat), the increase in liver fat was “significant.”
Krzysztof Czaja, study lead and an associate professor of veterinary biosciences and diagnostic imaging at the university, explains in a press release that this “is a very dangerous situation, because the liver accumulating more fat mimics the effect of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.”
Even though this disease is not caused by alcohol use, the damage to the liver can be just as severe.
The unbalanced diets also created chronic inflammation in the brain and intestinal tract. In other studies, Czaja found that brain inflammation changes how the brain and the digestive system communicate. This can make it hard to know when to stop eating.
Consumers should pay close attention to the sugar count in foods, particularly when they’re wooed by a product’s claim of being healthier or low in fat, the researchers suggest.
“Most so-called diet products containing low or no fat have an increased amount of sugar and are camouflaged under fancy names, giving the impression that they are healthy, but the reality is that those foods may damage the liver and lead to obesity as well,” says Czaja.
He also warns that “brain changes resulting from these unbalanced diets seem to be long term, and it is still not known if they are reversible by balanced diets.”
This study was published online earlier this year in the journal Physiology and Behavior.