“Silent Tsunami”

Saira Diaz uses her fingers to count the establishments selling fast food and sweets near the South Los Angeles home she shares with her parents and 13-year-old son. “There’s one, two, three, four, five fast-food restaurants,” she says. “And a little mom and pop store that sells snacks and sodas and candy.” In that low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood, it’s pretty hard for a kid to avoid sugar. Last year, doctors at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, a nonprofit community clinic seven blocks away, became alarmed by the rising weight of Diaz’s son, Adrian Mejia.

NASH linked to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure

They persuaded him to join an intervention study run by the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) that weans participants off sugar in an effort to reduce the rate of obesity and diabetes among children. It also targets a third condition fewer people have heard of: fatty liver disease. Linked both to genetics and diets high in sugar and fat, “fatty liver disease is ripping through the Latino community like a silent tsunami and especially affecting children,” says Rohit Kohli, chief of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at CHLA.

Recent research shows about one in four people in the U.S. have fatty liver disease. But among Latinos, especially of Mexican and Central American descent, the rate is significantly higher. One large study in Dallas found that 45 percent of Latinos had fatty livers. The illness, diagnosed when more than 5 percent of the liver’s weight is fat, does not cause serious problems in most people. But it can progress to a more severe condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH; linked to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.

HEROES designed to help children

This progressive form of fatty liver disease is the fastest-growing cause of liver transplants in young adults. The USC-CHLA study; led by Michael Goran, director of the Diabetes and Obesity Program at CHLA; who last year made an alarming discovery: sugar from sweetened beverages can be passed in breast milk; from mothers to their babies, potentially predisposing infants to obesity and fatty livers. Called HEROES, for Healthy Eating Through Reduction of Excess Sugar, his program is designed to help children like Adrian, who used to drink four or more sugary drinks a day, shed unhealthy habits that can lead to fatty liver and other diseases.

Fatty liver disease is gaining more attention in the medical community; as lawmakers ratchet up pressure to discourage; the consumption of sugar-laden drinks. Legislators in Sacramento are mulling proposals; to impose a statewide soda tax; put warning labels on sugary drinks; and bar beverage companies from offering discount coupons on sweetened drinks. “I support sugar taxes and warning labels; as a way to discourage consumption; but I don’t think that alone will do the trick;” Goran says. “We also need public health strategies; that limit marketing of sugary beverages, snacks and cereals to infants and children.”