NAFLD affects a large proportion of the US population and its incidence and prevalence are increasing to epidemic proportions around the world. As with other liver diseases that cause cirrhosis, NAFLD increases the risk of liver cancer, a disease with poor outcomes and limited therapeutic options. The incidences of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma are also rising, and HCC is now the leading cause of obesity-related cancer deaths in middle-aged men in the USA. In this Review, we summarize the correlations between liver cancer and NAFLD-related cirrhosis, and the role of the metabolic syndrome in the development of liver cancer from diverse aetiologies, including HCV-mediated cirrhosis. Recent advances in understanding the progression of NAFLD to HCC from preclinical models will also be discussed. Targeted genetic manipulation of certain metabolic or stress-response pathways, including one-carbon metabolism, NF-κB, PTEN and microRNAs, has been valuable in elucidating the pathways that regulate carcinogenesis in NAFLD. Although tremendous advances have occurred in the identification of diagnostic and therapeutic opportunities to reduce the progression of NAFLD, considerable gaps in our knowledge remain with regard to the mechanisms by which NAFLD and its risk factors promote liver cancer.