Researchers focused on what's known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is usually associated with obesity and certain eating habits. While dietary changes are recommended to treat this type of liver disease, research to date hasn't clearly demonstrated whether these changes can work for prevention.
For the current study, researchers examined data from dietary questionnaires and liver fat scans for 3,882 adults who were 70 years old on average. Scans showed 1,337 participants, or 34 percent had NAFLD, including 132 individuals who were a healthy weight and 1,205 who were overweight.
Overweight people who ate the most animal protein were 54 percent more likely to have fatty liver than individuals who consumed less meat, the analysis found.
"This was independent of common risk factors for NAFLD such as sociodemographic factors, lifestyle, and metabolic factors, said senior study author Dr. Sarwa Darwish Murad, a hepatologist at Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
"Perhaps most importantly, the association was independent of total caloric intake," Murad said by email. "We also showed that a diverse diet is important."
Study participants without fatty liver consumed an average of 2,052 calories a day, compared with 1,996 calories per day on average for people with fatty liver, researchers report in Gut.
People with fatty liver also got more of their total calories from protein: 16 percent compared with 15.4 percent without the liver condition. Vegetable consumption was similar for both groups; meats accounted for the difference in protein consumption.