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Liver cirrhosis is a disease that occurs when your healthy liver cells become damaged and scarred.

This damage and scarring prevent your liver from working properly and can cause many health problems.

Diet plays an important role in both the prevention and management of liver cirrhosis.

This article explains what to eat and avoid with liver cirrhosis and provides a sample liver cirrhosis diet menu.

liver cirrhosis diet

Causes and risk factors

Liver cirrhosis is a common liver disease, affecting 4.5 million Americans (1).

The condition develops slowly over time from various factors that can injure your liver.

These factors include (2):

One study found that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) — caused mainly by obesity and diabetes — is the most common reason for liver cirrhosis among all races and ethnicities sampled (3).

The same study also noted that liver cirrhosis is most commonly caused by excess alcohol consumption in whites and from hepatitis C in Blacks (3).

Inherited conditions like Wilson’s disease, hemochromatosis, and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can also cause liver cirrhosis (2).

Symptoms

The scarring of your liver that leads to cirrhosis prevents your liver from functioning properly.

As a result, you may experience symptoms such as (2):

  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • unintentional weight loss
  • yellowing of the skin and eye whites
  • stomach distension
  • itchy skin

These symptoms generally don’t appear until your liver has already experienced severe damage.

Diagnosis and treatment

To diagnose liver cirrhosis, your doctor will likely review your health history and any symptoms that you have been experiencing.

Based on your symptoms, your doctor may also perform additional tests to rule out other conditions that present similar symptoms.

Tests can include (2):

  • blood tests to check your liver and kidney function
  • genetic testing for an inherited disease, if suspected
  • abdominal CT scan or ultrasound to view your liver
  • a liver biopsy to examine your liver tissue

These tests and others can also help your doctor identify any complications from liver cirrhosis that require treatment.

Liver cirrhosis complications include (2):

  • Esophageal varices. Swollen veins in the lining of your esophagus, the tube that connects your throat and mouth.
  • Hepatic (liver) encephalopathy. A buildup of toxins in your blood, which can lead to poor brain function.
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma. The most common type of liver cancer.

Although you generally cannot reverse liver cirrhosis, you can manage your symptoms and reduce the risk of health complications with your diet.

Liver cirrhosis diet

With liver cirrhosis, you should avoid foods and drinks that can cause further liver damage.

At the same time, it’s necessary to increase your intake of items that can decrease inflammation and help you manage your symptoms.

While diet has not been shown to reverse liver cirrhosis, it can help optimize your liver function to prevent or reduce your risk of associated complications and improve your quality of life (4).

Foods to avoid

You should avoid foods that can cause liver inflammation and worsen your condition.

Added sugar foods

Added sugar is sugar added during the manufacturing process. These are different from the naturally occurring sugars in fruit and milk.

Examples of added sugar include:

  • regular soft drink
  • candy
  • cakes
  • cookies
  • pies
  • fruit drinks
  • dairy desserts
  • many kinds of breakfast cereals
  • condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • specialty coffee drinks

Consuming excess added sugars has been linked with liver inflammation and a condition called fatty liver, which can advance to liver cirrhosis.

High-sodium foods

Liver cirrhosis can cause high blood pressure in the portal vein, which carries blood from your stomach, pancreas, and other digestive organs to your liver.

When this happens, protein-containing fluid leaks from your liver and intestine and accumulates within your abdomen, causing distention. This condition is called ascites.

Consuming less sodium can help lower the pressure in your portal vein and decrease fluid accumulation in your abdomen, helping to relieve the uncomfortable feeling of ascites (5).

Limit high-sodium foods such as:

  • canned soups – unless they are low-sodium
  • seasoned and packaged rice and pasta mixes
  • frozen meals that contain more than 600 mg of sodium
  • processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and luncheon meats, and hot dogs
  • quick bread such as biscuits and cornbread
  • American, parmesan, Swiss, and cottage cheese
  • condiments such as salt, ketchup, soy sauce, salsa, pickles, and salad dressings

You can add flavors to your foods with lemon juice, dry or fresh herbs, and sodium-free seasonings.

Fried foods and processed meats

Fried foods and processed meats tend to be pro-inflammatory, meaning they produce inflammation and harmful free radicals in your body (6).

Normally, when you consume these foods in moderation alongside a healthy diet, your body can control this inflammation and neutralize the free radicals.

But with a damaged liver, your body can’t fight inflammation like it could if it was healthy.

That said, it’s important to limit or avoid fried foods and processed meats to reduce inflammation and further liver damager.

Examples include:

  • Fried foods: fried fish, french fries, onion rings, chicken strips, cheese curds, etc.
  • Processed meats: sausages, hot dogs, salami, bacon, canned meat, smoked meat, etc.

Alcohol

As a primary cause of liver cirrhosis, excessive alcohol use can severely damage your liver (7).

Therefore, avoid all alcohol to reduce further damage to your liver and other organs.

Foods to eat

Eating a diet low in sodium, high in protein, and rich in anti-inflammatory foods can help improve your nutritional status and better manage liver cirrhosis.

High-protein foods

Many people with liver cirrhosis become malnourished and lose their muscle mass and strength (8).

Therefore, you should consume plenty of protein to support your health and reduce the loss of muscle.

Good sources of protein include:

  • Poultry and eggs: chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant, chicken eggs
  • Meat: Beef, lamb, turkey
  • Dairy: milk, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt
  • Protein supplements: whey and casein protein powder, branched-chain amino acid (BCAAs) supplements
  • Beans, nuts, and seeds: garbanzo beans, soybeans, peas, almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fatty fish: salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, trout

Fatty fish contain essential omega-3 fatty acids. These fats can decrease liver inflammation and triglyceride levels, a type of fat in the blood, that when elevated, can increase your risk for heart disease (9, 10).

Fish oil supplements have also been shown to lower triglyceride levels and decrease liver inflammation (11, 12).

You can buy fish oil supplements online.

Having a protein-rich snack or protein supplement before bed can help support liver function and reduce muscle wasting that often occurs with liver cirrhosis (13, 14, 15, 16).

Fruit and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and minerals, as well as beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols.

Consuming a diet rich in polyphenols can help lower inflammation and neutralize free radicals that damage your body’s cells (17).

Fruits and vegetables with the highest polyphenol content include (18):

  • Fruits: black elderberry, plums, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, apples, peaches, etc.
  • Vegetables: artichoke, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, red lettuce, chicory, olives, onions, etc.

Whole-grains

Whole-grains are a great source of fiber and anti-inflammatory nutrients like zinc, selenium, and other antioxidants (19).

In one study, people with fatty liver disease who consumed mostly whole-grains for 12 weeks experienced a decrease in liver inflammation and blood pressure compared with those who didn’t (20).

Add these whole-grains to your diet:

  • oats
  • brown rice
  • quinoa
  • popcorn
  • millet
  • buckwheat
  • spelt
  • whole-grain bread and pasta

Coffee

As a significant source of antioxidants, coffee may have protective effects against liver cirrhosis and cancer (21, 22).

The caffeine in coffee may also be responsible for some of these beneficial effects on the liver (23, 24).

Several observational studies have demonstrated that consuming 2–4 cups (480–960 mL) of coffee per day is associated with decreased liver scarring and inflammation (25, 26).

One-day sample liver cirrhosis diet

Here is a one-day sample liver cirrhosis diet, low in sodium and high in protein and anti-inflammatory foods.

Breakfast

  • 1 cup (80 grams) old fashioned oats made with milk
  • 1 cup (140 grams) raspberries for oatmeal topping
  • two whole eggs scrambled
  • 3 cups (84 grams) of spinach, sautéed

Lunch

  • tuna patties made with:
    • one can of tuna
    • 1/4 cup whole-grain bread, torn into small pieces
    • 2 tsp (10 grams) of lemon juice
    • 2 tbsp (8 grams) fresh parsley, chopped
    • one egg, raw
  • 8-12 spears of asparagus, grilled
    • season with olive oil and salt-free garlic pepper

Snack

  • 1 cup (227 grams) of Greek yogurt
  • apple

Dinner

  • chicken piccata made with:
    • 2 ounces (56 grams) whole-wheat spaghetti
    • 2 tbsp (18 grams) whole-wheat flour
    • 4 ounces (113 grams) skinless chicken breast
    • 1/2 cup (75 grams) mushrooms, sliced
    • 1/2 tsp (1 gram) garlic, minced
    • 2 tsp (10 grams) of lemon juice
    • zucchini, thinly sliced

Snack

  • protein powder — which you can buy online — mixed with milk
  • 1 ounce (28 grams) of unsalted almonds

The bottom line

Liver cirrhosis is the scarring of your liver that occurs over time from excessive alcohol use, viral infections, diabetes, or obesity.

While you can’t reverse liver cirrhosis, diet can help optimize your liver function to prevent or reduce your risk of associated complications, as well as improve your quality of life.

Limit your intake of sodium, fried and processed foods, and avoid alcohol.

Instead, eat plenty of protein and anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to help with liver cirrhosis.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN
Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN

Gavin Van De Walle holds a master's degree in human nutrition and bioenergetics. He is a registered dietitian who aims to arm the public with evidence-based nutrition recommendations so they can make their own educated and informed health decisions.