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Eating Fish and Liver Disease

Abdelhakim Elbarsha is a consultant gastroenterologist, endoscopist, and an assistant university professor.


Is Eating Fish Good for Liver Health?

The liver is a large organ that plays an extremely complex and significant role in the protection against toxins. It receives blood from the gut which carries all the absorbed substances that can be digestion products, environmental toxins, medications, etc. Through a series of biochemical reactions, a huge number of these substances are converted to harmless products to be excreted later by kidneys.

Because of its first-line defense duty, the liver is directly vulnerable to everything we eat or consume—food (including preservatives and colorants), drinks, and medications.

It's proved that liver health is affected by diet content, and that liver disease can be positively or negatively affected by food. Among the questions that many patients with liver disease frequently ask, is about eating fish. Is a diet of fish beneficial or deleterious to their liver condition?

In this article, I tried to summarize how eating fish will affect your liver disease.

Avoid Salted Fish

Salt restriction is an important issue for patients with liver disease when they suffer from edema in the form of water accumulation in the body particularly in the legs and abdomen. Smoked fish therefore should be eliminated from the menu as well as tanned fish (salmon, pilchards, and tuna).

Alternatively, fish tinned in oil, with no salt, is accepted. Adding lemon or lime juice, spices, pepper, and herbs to fish is another way instead of adding salt.

Avoid salted fish

Avoid salted fish

Don't Worry About Protein Content of FIsh

There is a misconception regarding eating food with high protein and the increased risk of developing hepatic encephalopathy (a state of mental suppression that can be fatal), in patients with liver cirrhosis.

High protein intake can worsen hepatic encephalopathy, hence restricting proteins in encephalopathic patients is strongly recommended. But in the absence of encephalopathy, protein restriction is not justifiable—fish is not an exception.

Additionally, it's advisable to divide your daily fish intake (and protein in general), evenly throughout the day, in multiple snacks, rather than one or two big meals.

Fish proteins contain taurine (an amino acid), which is essential for the integrity of your body tissues including, in particular, the walls of the arteries and veins connected to the liver

Farmed Versus Wild Fish

Because they are fed unnatural diets, farmed fish (and generally all conventionally raised livestock), contain higher amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and are occasionally poor in the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that differ from omega-3 fatty acids in that they induce inflammatory changes in the body tissues including the liver. Therefore, always look for wild (naturally fed) fish.

Eating Fish Provides Your Liver With Healthy Fats

Fish contain essential fatty acids in their natural and unprocessed form. This is particularly true for oily fish like those listed below.

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Sardines
  • Herring
  • Sablefish
  • Flounder
  • Trout
  • Bass
  • Mackerel

Essential fatty acids are crucial in the structure of liver cell membranes. Therefore a normal liver function depends on an adequate supply of essential fatty acids, and not following a low-fat diet which many people think it's good for their liver health.

Foods with fats that need to be restricted are generally vegetable oils and processed fat. Fish also contain methionine, which helps detoxification of your body by the liver.



Fresh Versus Preserved Fish

Without a doubt, eat fresh! Preserved (eg smoked fish), in addition to their possible increased salt content, pose an elevated risk of stomach cancer.

Should You Eat Fish If You Have Fatty Liver?

Fish are a good source of protein and “good fat”. Deep-sea fish are richer in “good fat”. A diet rich in protein would supply you with your daily needs of amino acids. Because they are essential in the synthesis of enzymes carrying out detoxification reactions, these play a vital role in maintaining the normal liver toxin “cleansing “ function. This will help halt further liver damage when it's already diseased with fat accumulation.

“Good fats” are omega-3 fatty acids which are the polyunsaturated fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, exclusively found in marine oils.

The high omega-3 fatty acid content of fish, adds the extra benefit of fish for patients with early liver disease and fatty liver. Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally occurring anti-inflammatory substances, that can prevent liver cell damage and can even improve abnormally high liver enzymes. Therefore they reverse the abnormalities that can lead eventually to liver cirrhosis if left untreated.

The main sources of omega-3 fatty acids are cold-water fish, such as mackerel, herring, flaxseeds, and salmon.

It's recommended to eat fish at least three times a week to maintain a steady supply with omega-3 fatty acids, but you can boost your daily intake of essential fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids by taking fish oil in the form of capsules.

Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids supplements reduce the liver fat content and improve the portal blood pressure (i.e. the blood pressure in the portal venous blood circulation).

Studies clearly showed that fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids supplements significantly improve fatty changes in the liver and are recommended for patients with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).

Fatty liver disease as seen under the light microscope.

Fatty liver disease as seen under the light microscope.

What About Shellfish?

Although not fish, shellfish is worth mentioning liver protective seafood. It's rich in a substance called betane (also known as trimethyl glycine). Betane was found to be effective in minimizing alcohol-induced liver injury, owing to its effect in increasing vitamin A and glutathione (an antioxidant) levels in the liver tissue.

Betane reduces the amount of fat and other harmful substances in the liver that can accelerate the process of natural cell death (apoptosis). Furthermore, it stimulates a series of chemical reactions that lead to the mobilization of fat from the liver. It was found that consuming 300 grams per week or more of fish reduces the risk of developing alcoholic liver disease.



What Happens If You Don’t Eat Fish?

A diet devoid of fish is generally poor in omega-3 fatty acids and relatively rich in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids, although they are polyunsaturated fatty acids, they enhance the risk of injury of a normal liver by increasing the production of certain toxic materials in the body. They also induce the formation of cholesterol stones in the gallbladder, which may cause inflammation (cholecystitis) or obstruction of the bile ducts resulting in jaundice and even liver damage.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: My liver doctor told me some seafood is bad for my liver disease. What seafood is bad?

Answer: Broadly speaking, seafood consumption is safe for patients with liver diseases. It's the way seafood is processed that determines whether there is a risk or no. If you cook fish very well, it shouldn't be harmful, since bacteria is destroyed by cooking (unlike in grilled fish). Thus, by good cooking, you will protect yourself from infections which may be serious in patients with low immunity, like some chronic liver disease patients.

Question: Is it ok to eat shrimp with liver disease?

Answer: Of course.

Question: Can you eat scallops with liver disease?

Answer: Yes of course. Scallops contain vitamin B12 which is usually deficient in people with chronic liver disease. The only concern is that some heavy metals like cadmium may be there in scallops, and therefore we should diversify our seafoods to get the maximum benefit with no harm.

Question: Is it OK to eat tilapia if you have liver cancer?

Answer: Of course. But generally, because Tilapia is usually raised, and frequently treated with antibiotics and pesticides, other choices are better.

Question: Is oyster good for fatty liver?

Answer: Oyster should be well cooked, other wise it will be harmful since it contains bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus.

© 2016 Abdelhakim Elbarsha


Sahil on July 17, 2020:

Hello Team,

Is rohu good to have for fatty liver ?

Steve G on September 24, 2019:

thanks man for the extra bit of education you are a great asset to many.

Daniel on May 13, 2019:

Is catfish and bass ok