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Fatty liver disease: how a death sentence transformed a teen’s life

By Sari Huhtala

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Alive and Fit Magazine in 2014.

Purging her cupboards of all processed foods was no small feat for Julie MacDonald, who was a self-proclaimed “bulk buyer.” She remembers loading boxes upon boxes of cans and food items into her vehicle, en route to the local food bank. When you’re a bulk buyer, you “buy big.” Pasta’s on special? She’d stock up and buy 100 packages to feed a finicky family of four, but that’s all changed now.

Instead, her family’s out foraging the wilds for edible roots, mushrooms and berries in season, and stocking up on every veggie and fruit imaginable while grocery shopping.

It’s a far cry from their eating habits, consuming only “very, very bad food,” only three short years ago, but when it becomes a matter of life and death, especially for your own child, you choose life, says MacDonald.

Faced with a diagnosis of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, much like cirrhosis of the liver, caused by fat deposited in the liver as a result of poor dietary habits, her daughter Tammy received a dismal warning from their family doctor when she was only 15 years old.

“If she didn’t change her eating habits, which included a lot of fast food and processed foods, she would not make it past the age of 20,” MacDonald says. “Our doctor told us we needed to cut out the processed foods and the fast foods and he wrote on a prescription pad the Paleo Diet and jotted down all of its benefits.

“I felt I had no choice but to do what he said because my daughter was going to die.”

The fatty liver disease was discovered by chance when her daughter underwent blood tests after being diagnosed with polycystic ovarian disease. By the age of 14 a benign tumour on her right ovary had grown to the size of a football and surgery was required to remove the tumour. They had also discovered a small tumour, the size of a grape, on her left ovary, but it was left to be monitored, rather than surgically removed.

Fast forward three years, and her fatty liver disease has been completely reversed, she’s in optimum health and the tumour on her left ovary has completely vanished.

The secret? The Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet, founded by Dr. Loren Cordain, is based on the types of foods that were consumed by hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic era. The diet is based on high-protein intake, derived mainly from animal protein and seafood, low carb and low glycemic index foods, mainly non-starchy fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, unprocessed foods, nutrient-dense, high antioxidant and plant polyphenol plant-based foods. The foods that are considered a no-no include sugars, grains, legumes, dairy products and processed foods.

Change in the MacDonald family’s dietary habits didn’t happen overnight. Slow, but steady wins the race, and ultimately becomes a lifestyle habit, says MacDonald.

“When I got into the Paleo Diet I got into a lot of other nutritionals because I like to play clue and research,” MacDonald says. “My daughter’s 18 now and she’s lost weight and feels great. She’d never go back to her old ways. This was a life wake-up call. I experienced weight loss and because I’m eating a lot of antioxidants my joints don’t swell, my back pain is gone, my hands shrunk three sizes and my feet shrunk three sizes.”

Sure, there was much resistance to follow the Paleo Diet at first, she says. Afterall, over the course of 20 years MacDonald has introduced the family to one diet after another, year after year, with the primary goal of helping the family lose weight. MacDonald says she herself has always been “a big woman,” tipping the scale at over 200 pounds by the age of 14. So, weight control has always been a challenge in the family, but it stems from poor eating habits from a very young age, that she ultimately passed down to her own children simply because that’s all she’s ever known, she says.

The Paleo Diet approach was different. This was about nutrition and fueling one’s body optimally. Simply put, in the MacDonald household, diet has become a “bad” four-letter word.

“We decided if we were going to do it, we were going to do it as a family and we all agreed to encourage each other.”

“I’m very weak when it comes to self-control,” MacDonald admits. “When my husband is sitting beside me eating chips, I have no self-control, so we needed to do this change as an entire family.”

“The first thing we did was to purge the fridge, cupboards and closets and make a big trip to the food bank,” MacDonald remembers.

The next step was to begin introducing more fruits and vegetables into the family’s diet, and considering the family’s taste buds only preferred select veggies like iceberg lettuce and corn, it’s best to begin the journey with fruits, says MacDonald.

And so, she did. Blending all kinds of berries and fruits into a smoothie, she’d add a veggie in there, well-disguised by the taste of the fruits. As the days passed, she’d slip in another veggie.

“I would see how much vegetables I could sneak in before they noticed and when I did it a little bit at a time, they’d get used to it.”

To get her family more enthusiastic about eating more than just iceberg lettuce salad with processed salad dressing, she’d lay out a variety of salad toppings – nuts and seeds, veggies and fruits – at meal time and allow every member of the family to create a salad to their liking.

The key to making the diet palatable was to make the change subtle, and to avoid overwhelming change in their dietary habits, she says. Just change one thing at a time.

One of the first dietary changes was to eliminate all wheat and grains. In essence, “pretend you are celiac and have to eat a gluten-free diet,” she says. “Just that alone will cut down on processed foods tremendously.”

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is considered a looming crisis among young people, a recent study shows.

A 2019 UK-based study involving 3277 young people, with a mean age of 24, showed that 680 (20.8 per cent) of the study participants were found to have steatosis. Steatosis indicates the build up of fat in the liver. All young people with known excessive alcohol intake were excluded from the study.

Between 20 to 30 per cent of the global population is believed to have NAFLD, with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes as precursors to the disease.

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