Wayne Eskridge says he’s “just a typical American guy,” but that doesn’t begin to describe him really.
It’s true that, like a lot of Americans, Wayne loves red meat and potatoes. And like a lot of people, as he aged, he put on a pound or two each year until he was overweight. And like a lot of Americans, not just men, Wayne was told over and over during doctors’ visits that he should exercise more and watch what he ate. Over the years, he did diet and lose weight. But he gained it back. In that way, he was just like a “typical American guy.”
But something changed for him a few years ago that sets Wayne apart.
“We’ve all heard these things endlessly, ‘lose weight and exercise’, and yet we don’t change our ways,” he said. “But if you can capture a person’s attention and emotional commitment to an idea at the right time, and with the right message, you can precipitate lasting change.”
An Unknown Risk
That’s what happened for Wayne, and he’s spent the last several years trying to help others to do the same.
He recently sat down with us at 23andMe to talk about his journey from an average American guy to a man who started a foundation to save others like him and help them on a path to better health.
The CEO and founder of the Fatty Liver Foundation, Wayne wants to raise awareness about a life-threatening condition that few people know anything about: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. But he also wants to help people more broadly make health changes, and he’s willing to use his own story to help.
Tens of millions of people are walking around with fatty liver disease and don’t even know it. It’s one of the many potential consequences of being overweight. According to the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, it’s estimated that about 24 percent of American adults have the condition. Wayne was once like millions of others, walking around with a condition he didn’t know anything about. He wants to change that by raising awareness not only about fatty liver disease but also about the benefits of adopting healthy habits.
Lifestyle really is key. While genetics do play a role in the likelihood of developing fatty liver disease, lifestyle is very important. As part of our 23andMe+ membership, we have a report powered by our own research on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. It looks at more than 1,400 genetic variants to estimate a person’s likelihood of developing the condition. But beyond genetics, lifestyle and diet play a big role in one’s likelihood in developing the disease. Wayne wants to raise awareness about all the factors that could lead to risks for the condition and push for more research.
Similar to other chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other various cardiovascular diseases, the number of people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has grown as the rates of obesity have risen. So many people are overweight that it’s been normalized, Wayne said.
“It’s as if it’s a non-event and there’s been this generational drift to accept less wellness,” he said.
In his own experience, he thinks back to long before his diagnosis, when his blood pressure was creeping up and his weight edged up, and he asked his doctor about it.
“And he said, ‘all my patients are dealing with this. It’s just how we are,’” Wayne recalls.
For Wayne, it was a missed opportunity for the doctor to impress on him the importance of taking charge of his health.
“I may not have listened but he let that opportunity slide,” Wayne said.
Here are some sobering statistics. In the last two decades, the percentage of the American population who are obese went from about 30 percent to more than 40 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. Even among children, there’s been an uptick in obesity. In 1980 only about five percent of kids were considered obese, but by 2018 more than 19 percent were, according to the CDC. And there is a cascade of chronic health issues that stem directly from that increase in obesity. Wayne’s focus has been on one of those conditions. And he started the Fatty Liver Foundation to raise awareness about this condition that affects so many people but remains largely unknown.
“If you have two friends, one of you likely has fatty liver disease, and don’t even know it,” said Wayne. “It’s that bad, there’s this whole suite of metabolic diseases — heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure — that are all related to what’s happening in our society with the obesity epidemic.”
An Ah-Ha Moment
Wayne’s knowledge about fatty liver disease and other chronic metabolic conditions comes from the experience of years of trying to figure out what was going on with his own health. Ten years ago, Wayne didn’t know anything about fatty liver disease.
“I’d had my gallbladder removed and, after the procedure, the doctors showed me a photo of my liver,” he said.
The surgeon told him it appeared that he had stage four liver cirrhosis. If true that would be a bleak diagnosis with little that can be done. It turned out that Wayne didn’t have liver cirrhosis, but that encounter began a difficult five-year-long medical journey before being diagnosed with fatty liver disease, or more accurately cirrhotic nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) due to the build-up of fat in his liver, causing inflammation and liver damage.
That was Wayne’s ah-ha moment. That’s when he changed.
In going through all the challenges leading up to his diagnosis, Wayne and his wife had become much more aware of the true impact of diet and lifestyle on health. It’s as if it took that long, arduous journey for them to be receptive to the message he got when he was diagnosed. There really was no other way.
“I was determined to do everything I could to defeat the liver beast,” Wayne said.
He and his wife went home and cleared out the pantry. They looked at the changes not as a diet but as a whole shift in how they lived, creating a healthy food strategy, passing on sugary desserts, processed foods, and juicy steaks. The shift paid off and he lost 45 pounds. He said the biggest accomplishment was going in for a liver biopsy and learning that his condition wasn’t progressing.
“My wife and I celebrated by eating a salad,” he said.
Since then, Wayne has worked very hard to help others either dealing with a later-stage liver disease diagnosis, but also trying to prevent others from getting to a point of no return. The mission of the foundation is pretty stark.
“We want to help you avoid this kind of death by helping you understand how you may be killing yourself slowly — and, what you can do about it. If you are already ill, we will do our best to help you with that process.”
According to the Fatty Liver Foundation:
- 100 million Americans have a fatty liver, and the vast majority of them have no idea.
- 20 million of them will develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
- 5 million will develop liver cirrhosis or NASH, which can end in liver failure.
In his work trying to make a dent in those stats, Wayne has used his own experience of seeing an image of his swollen liver. That’s what helped him internalize the message about how important his day-to-day lifestyle and diet had been to his health. The vision of his ailing liver was that of a “deadly beast” that was trying to kill him. Seeing it made him determined to do what he could to stop that from happening.
He used that experience to inspire a recent study done by the foundation in Houston. There they did liver scans of patients, and showed them the condition of their own liver, and found that it did indeed register with patients who began making healthy changes to their diet.
That’s a message that goes beyond people at risk for fatty liver disease, and Wayne knows it. Fatty liver disease and being overweight can raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can also progress to even more severe conditions. He wants to help people prevent that.
“It really comes down to how to motivate people to make a change,” Wayne said. “We’re looking for those teachable moments because we’ve all heard these messages endlessly about diet and exercise.”
Food is about more than just nutrition and sustenance for so many of us. There are emotional and psychological components to what we eat and when we eat it. In a book about his own struggles to lose weight, the writer Tommy Tomlinson said that telling someone who is overweight to “eat less and exercise is like telling a boxer don’t get hit. You act as if there’s not an opponent.”
Food carries with it memories, for some, it becomes a reward or a reminder. Wayne knows that from personal experience. It’s why he and his wife had a tradition of celebrating big occasions with a chocolate volcano cake. They don’t do that anymore.
“It is so hard to change, but if you can capture a person’s attention and emotional commitment to an idea you can help them with lasting change,” he said.
For more information about the Fatty Liver Foundation visit their website here. You can find your 23andMe+ Nonalcoholic Liver Disease report (Powered by 23andMe Research) here.* Not yet at 23andMe+ member? Find out more here.