Jaundice is a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment released during the breakdown of red blood cells. Too much of this pigment causes the skin, eyes, and gums to turn yellow.

The liver typically filters bilirubin out of the blood, so jaundice is usually related to liver disease or failure.

A majority of jaundice cases occur in newborns, young children, and immune-compromised adolescents and adults.

In most cases, a bilirubin blood levels of 2 to 3 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher will cause visible symptoms.

How does diet play a role in jaundice recovery?

selection of fruit and vegetables
Certain foods are easier to digest and more liver-friendly than others.

A person’s diet plays a significant role in jaundice recovery and prevention.

During digestion, the liver produces bile that helps the intestine break down fats.

The liver is also responsible for processing or metabolizing most digested nutrients, toxins, and medications.

All foods and drinks require the liver to do a certain amount of work. But different nutrients and chemicals are digested and metabolized differently, making some more liver-friendly than others.

The amount of work the liver has to do increases when foods are difficult to digest. This is especially true for large amounts of refined sugars, salt, and saturated fats.

Toxins, such as alcohol and some medications, can also damage liver cells during metabolism.

People with jaundice are usually advised to eat foods and drinks that help improve digestion and metabolism, protect the liver from further damage, and detoxify the liver.

What to eat

A doctor will provide an individualized treatment plan, including dietary suggestions, to a person recovering from jaundice.

These suggestions will vary depending on the severity of the case and any underlying medical conditions. But there are certain foods and drinks most people with jaundice are advised to add to their diet.

Foods and drinks to consume during jaundice recovery include:

Water

Staying hydrated is one of the best ways to help the liver recover from jaundice. Water not only helps ease digestion, but it also helps the liver and kidneys flush out toxins.

Most people should drink at least 64 ounces or just under 2 liters of water daily.

If people find the taste bland, they can try adding a teaspoon or more of fresh lemon, lime, or grapefruit juice to water for an extra dose of antioxidants.

Fresh fruits and vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants and fiber that can help limit liver damage during metabolism and ease digestion.

All fruits and vegetables contain some level of liver-friendly nutrients, but some varieties are especially beneficial for liver conditions. These include:

  • whole cranberries, blueberries, and grapes
  • citrus fruits, especially lemons, limes, and grapefruits
  • papayas and melons
  • pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and yams
  • avocados and olives
  • tomatoes
  • carrots, beets, and turnips
  • cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts
  • ginger and garlic
  • spinach and collard greens

For optimal health benefits, people should eat whole fruits and vegetables and avoid high-calorie, low-fiber products, such as fruit juices and blends.

It is also advised to limit or avoid highly processed and refined sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Coffee and herbal tea

Coffee and herbal teas contain high doses of antioxidants, as well as caffeine, which can help stimulate digestion.

In moderation, coffee has been shown to help reduce the risk of liver conditions, including cancer and fibrosis (scarring), and slow their progression.

Whole grains

Whole grain foods contain high amounts of liver-friendly nutrients, including healthy fats, fiber, antioxidants, and minerals.

A 2013 study confirmed that subjects who ate oats, which are rich in beta-glucan, improved liver function after 12 weeks of consumption.

Nuts and legumes

Most nuts and legumes are rich in antioxidants, including vitamin E and phenolic acid.

Whole nuts and legumes are also usually rich in fiber and healthy fats. Studies show that walnuts and other tree nuts are beneficial to liver function when consumed regularly.

Lean proteins

Lean proteins, including tofu, legumes, and fish, put less stress on the liver than red meat. Oily species of fish, such as salmon and mackerel, contain omega-3 and zinc, which help metabolize fatty acids, alcohols, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Foods to avoid

Foods and drinks to avoid or limit during jaundice recovery include:

Alcohol

Alcohol is toxic to most internal bodily tissues, including the liver. Excessive alcohol use can cause chronic inflammation, reduce liver function, and lead to fibrosis.

Most people with jaundice or other liver conditions should try to avoid alcohol completely.

Refined carbohydrates

Soda, baked goods, white bread, and pasta all contain high amounts of refined sugar.

Too much sugar has been linked to a number of health conditions that impair liver function, including type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Packaged, canned, and smoked foods

selection of dairy products
Some dairy products contain high levels of saturated fat and should be avoided.

Many packaged, canned, or smoked foods, especially deli meats and canned vegetables, contain high levels of preservatives.

These preservatives are usually forms of salt, such as nitrates and sulfates. Salt dehydrates the body, making digestion and metabolism more difficult, and putting stress on the liver.

Food items with 1.5 grams (g) salt per 100 g (or 0.6 g sodium) or higher are considered high in salt.

Saturated and trans fats

Fried, oily, and fast foods contain high amounts of saturated and trans fats that are difficult to digest, particularly those prepared with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Some dairy products, including cheeses, whole milk, and full-fat yogurts, also contain high levels of saturated fat.

Researchers are not entirely sure why, but studies indicate that people who consume large amounts of saturated and trans fat undergo liver changes and an increase in insulin resistance. Insulin helps control blood sugar levels and helps digest sugar.

Large intakes of saturated and trans fats have also been linked to obesity and malnutrition, which are both risk factors for liver conditions, including jaundice.

It is recommended to limit saturated fat intake to 5 to 6 percent of total calories, and try to limit or avoid trans fats altogether.

Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish

Raw or undercooked fish and shellfish may contain toxins that can damage the liver and other digestive organs.

There is also a risk that they contain viruses, bacteria, and parasites that can infect the liver.

Beef and pork

Rich meats, such as beef and pork, contain high levels of animal amino acids and fats that can be difficult to digest and put a strain on a damaged liver.

Most studies suggest lean meats, such as poultry and fish, as well as plant-based proteins, such as legumes and tofu, are more liver-friendly protein sources.

Who benefits from liver-friendly foods?

three toddlers playing
Very young children benefit from eating liver-healthy food.

People in a high-risk category for jaundice are often advised to eat certain liver-healthy foods to help reduce their chances of developing the condition.

People who may benefit from liver-healthy foods and supplements include:

  • pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers
  • newborns and very young children
  • immune-compromised individuals
  • people with liver conditions, such as hepatitis, bile duct obstructions (gallstones or tumors), and alcoholic or fatty liver disease
  • people taking certain prescription drugs, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), prescription pain medication, steroids, immune and hormone regulating drugs
  • people with hereditary conditions, especially Gilbert syndrome and Dublin-Johnson syndrome

However, most children and adults who eat a healthy, balanced diet are at a low-risk of developing jaundice and do not need to make any dietary changes unless advised to do so by a doctor.