Weekend Special: Human Foie Gras


A new clinical study was just released linking a low-carbohydrate diet to reduced liver fat. Get this, though – the scientists actually compared the low-carb diet to a low-calorie diet and found the low-cal diet severely lacking. Their results aren’t surprising, especially to our readers. In fact, we’re almost tempted to put this in the “Duh” files, but these guys seem to be on our side: they went into it with a hypothesis that maybe, just maybe, a low-carb diet could be helpful, and the results speak for themselves. A study that’s actually intended to investigate the advantages of a low-carb diet without the underlying assumption that CW-driven low-cal diets are better? No way we’re passing up a chance to discuss it!

Still, even the language used in the press release seems a bit misleading: “people on low-carbohydrate diets are more dependent on the oxidation of fat in the liver for energy than those on a low-calorie diet.” It almost sounds like a negative, doesn’t it? But that’s probably just us being hypersensitive. After years and years of CW and low-cal and low-fat diet talk, you can’t blame us for jumping the gun.

That said, it warms our hearts to hear a lead researcher for once say, “Instead of looking at drugs to combat obesity and the diseases that stem from it, maybe optimizing diet can not only manage and treat these diseases, but also prevent them.” This was admittedly a rather “small clinical study,” but the very fact that this type of research is receiving funding is fantastic. The team from UT Southwestern Medical Center, led by Drs. Jeffrey Browning and Shawn Burgess, was examining the effects of diet on glucose production and utilization in the liver. As we already know, both glucose and fat are metabolized in the liver and converted into energy for our bodies. Glucose can come from lactate, amino acids, or from glycogen (ingested carbohydrates and sugars). Browning and Burgess randomly assigned fourteen overweight or obese adults to either a low-carb or a low-calorie diet. After two weeks, they analyzed the biochemical pathways each group used to make glucose.

The low-carb group got most of their glucose from lactate or amino acids; the low-calorie dieters got about 40% of their glucose from ingested carbohydrates. But the truly interesting discovery was that because the low-carbers didn’t have much glycogen to burn, their livers started burning fat for energy instead, especially liver fat. Indeed, “results indicate that patients on the low-carbohydrate diet increased fat burning throughout the entire body.” (This can probably be explained by the formerly fatty liver being freed up to do a better job of removing excess insulin; a fatty liver can’t process insulin effectively, so reducing your carb intake burns fat in the liver which in turn allows it to process more insulin, effectively lowering your insulin levels and promoting less storage of fat… whew!)

Losing fat, as we already know, isn’t just an aesthetic advantage, but a boon to our overall health (take that, “fat but fit” crowd), a strangely foreign idea to way too many in this country. Not to Browning and Burgess, thankfully, who suspect a low-carb diet might pay huge dividends for people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is caused by (surprise, surprise) excess liver fat. In fact, Browning and Burgess’ next study will examine the effects of low-carb diets on liver metabolism in people with NAFLD (we don’t like giving spoilers, but we think we know what their results might be).

Stay tuned for more.

Further Reading:

What Was I Just Saying About Ketosis?

The Primal Blueprint Sneak Preview

Study Spotlight: The Mood Diet

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16 thoughts on “Weekend Special: Human Foie Gras”

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  1. I don’t really follow any kind of low carb diet, rather, I just try and eat food in as close to its natural state most of the time. However, when you do this, the amount of carbs you are consuming drops dramatically. When people eat a lot of highly processed food, they are getting tons of carbs in the form of sugars and starches. The human body did not evolve having to consume that many carbs in one go. I suspect this is the reason this study is finding such benefits in a low carb diet.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    – Dave

  2. This quote “Instead of looking at drugs to combat obesity and the diseases that stem from it, maybe optimizing diet can not only manage and treat these diseases, but also prevent them.”

    Talk about ‘duh’. We are too eager as a society to just pop pills and expect medicine to magically make all our problems go away. Take your health into your own hands, people!

  3. And what causes a liver to put on fat? Concentrated fructose, one of the most common ingredients in supermarket foods.

    We now find HFCS in sodas, catsup, “100% fruit juice”, and just about every other packaged food one can pick up at a supermarket. Even honey (probably the only naturally high fructose source Grok had access to) is a huge dose of concentrated fructose, so watch the honey intake. Fresh fruit has far less fructose than one might imagine, so if eating fresh unprocessed fruit in reasonable quantities, that source of fructose is less of an issue (fructose is named for fruit only because it was first discovered in fruit).

    And watch out for “natural, raw, low-glycemic” agave syrup, touted as a great new “safe” sweetener for “healthy” eaters and diabetics. Agave syrup is a common sweetener in “natural” and “organic” processed foods at the “health food” stores. Depending on brand, agave syrup/nectar has as much as 92% of its sugars as fructose. That’s far higher than the 55% or so that HFCS has! And high intake of fructose is especially damaging to diabetics resulting in increased AGEs and A1c.

    Human “foie gras” indeed! Take care of your liver, it’s a very, very important organ.

  4. Good to see there are studies like this. I still eat carbs but I do eat a lot less than I used to. I think there are quite a few people who could do with cutting down their carb intake and studies like these can highlight this.

  5. We don’t get much HFCS here in the UK but they do love to push wheat starch into all kinds of things to make them Healthy Low Fat (I think it was last year they opened a new starch factory)

    As this campaign


    is ramped up expect to see *further* increases in obesity diabetes cardiovascular disease etc. and MORE blame to the patients

    As you say the results aren’t surprising but the fact they have been published is yet another brick in the wall

    Personally I know a couple of people who reversed NAFLD with low carb and close BG control


    which surprised their doctors

  6. Interesting. A few years ago I had a body scan done. I was obese at the time. The only comment that bothered me in the notes about it was that I had a moderately severe fatty liver. A severly fatty liver! That was a shock even though it probably shouldn’t have been.

    In November of 2007 I started a low carb diet and have stuck to it with gusto. I love eating this way. My BMI is 27 right now. In December of 2008 I had another body scan done and the comment on the liver was that it was normal. It’s just one more personal experience that follows along with much of the research that comes with low carb lifestyle.

  7. I thought the article was written in a very misleading way. In fact, I had to read it several times because I felt like it was contradicting, with positive and negative sounding parts. In the end, I realized it was just poor wording with a message a lot of people need to hear. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I used to drink alcohol everyday because of my job as a Brewer and my diet is high in carbohydrates.I also have a persistent abdominal pain but the doctors didn’t find anything and my SGPT and SGOT were normal. But I suspect it was my liver. So when I quit my job, I stop drinking alcohol and shift my diet to low carb (my carbs are mostly from vegetables and fruits). After 5 months, my weight dropped from 67.5 kg to 57 kg and I became so lean that my body now is better than when I was in Universtiy. In addition, the occasional abdominal pain was gone. The only drawback is people started thinking that I’m a fool since I don’t eat rice (and processed food) anymore. Oh by the way, I also exercised 5-6 days a week at 30-45 minutes. I don’t do long cardio since I’m so busy with my work. I only do 15-20 minutes resistance training (full body) and 10-15 HIIT(my Korean friends always say I’m crazy when they see me doing this…). I hope they do more studies about this to educate the mainstream.

  9. Loved this article and the others I read getting to this one. I was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease March 2013 and I am anxiously awaiting the results of my upcoming liver ultrasound (March 2014). I have seen remarkable improvements in my health since. I suspect to see some notable improvement (decreased fat on my liver) in the liver scan and there will be no doubt in my mind that the low-carbohydrate Paleolithic diet I have been on for the past year (accompanied with quazie regular exercise) had everything to do with it! Thank you Robb Wolf for saving my life.

  10. Need advice:

    My parents are a mess. Since my step dad has no gall bladder and has been diagnosed with Fatty Liver, if we put him on a low carb diet and increase his saturated fat, will he be able to process all of that good fat, what is in his liver and what he is consuming? or does it not matter, all the fat will be metabolized?

    Secondly, mother is full on diabetic now. She is not that over weight, I’d say only 30 lbs. compared to my weight and we are both 6 foot. She has been overweight for years though and most of her fat is localized in her abdomen. She is finally willing to listen to what I have to say about diet and exercise since her Dr. keeps upping up her insulin with honestly little affect. The question is, why do people like my mother who are not that overweight and isn’t necessarily sedentary, she is on her feet all day, so she is insulin resistant compared to people I know that are very obese and sedentary who are not even close to diabetes? Does it have to do with the number of fat cells? What is the mechanism here? Are some people more sensitive to higher carbs and it takes less abuse to get them to shut down?