Soda Machines

New study looks at what sugar does to the liver

PHOTO: The impact of the sugars found in soda and sports drinks, two things popular with adolescents, is being studied in a new clinical trial.

Is it the sugar in our diets that is messing with the livers of our young people?

That’s what a new study will attempt to find out. The  Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced Monday (April 13) that it is giving a $1 million grant to the Nutrition Science Initiative. That money will go toward funding what’s considered the first controlled clinical trial to see if a sugar-free diet can reverse the effects of  nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition widely associated with obesity.

Last summer, after reading a New York Times story, I wrote about fatty liver disease and young people. Years of heavy drinking can lead to one form of the disease, but the nonalcoholic version that doctors are seeing in children (!) and young adults — particularly those who are obese — is something very new.

Just three decades ago there wasn’t even a name for this disease, that’s how seldom anyone suffered from it. Now, some 10 percent of children and 20 percent of adults have the disease, according to the the NYT’s story. That information alone just blows my mind.

The number of persons with NAFLD has gone up tenfold in one decade, according to Arnold Foundation statistics. Left untreated, the condition can bring on the sort of damage that causes a form of liver cancer.

There are no medications to treat the disease, which can destroy a person’s liver, the NYT story pointed out. So far, what doctors have been telling people diagnosed with the illness is to stop eating sugar.

This new clinical trial will see if what the evidence has been pointing to — that taking in high levels of sugar, particularly those in soda, sports drinks and some processed foods — may be what gets the disease started.

Here’s how the eight-week trial will work: 40 young people who have been diagnosed with NAFLD will participate. Half of them will eat and drink what they normally do. The rest will be put on sugar-free meals and snacks, all of which will be provided for them and their families. Researchers will monitor them and keep track of their liver fat content.

If the trial does show what’s expected, that would be huge news, and we as a country would have our work cut out for us. As Dr. Robert Lustig has pointed out, 80 percent of the 600,000 foods in our grocery stores have sugar added to them. A lot of people are making big bucks on our national obsession with sugar; taking it out of our foods is not going to be any easy feat. But the lives of our children, our future, may very well depend on it.

I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this trial.

NOTE: Updated to correct the name of the foundation.