Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
What are the health benefits and risks to eating liver, how much should you be eating, what kind, and how often?
Liver is one of the most potent superfoods on planet earth.
Liver contains more micronutrients than nearly all plant foods.
Liver and other offal are an important part of a healthy diet.
Eating too much beef liver can lead to toxic levels of vitamin A.
Farm-raised liver is healthier than liver from wild animals.
Liver is an essential part of the carnivore diet.
There are delicious ways to prepare liver or hide it in foods you already love.
If you’ve been on your health and wellness journey for a while now, you’ve likely heard all manner of experts (both credentialed professionals and your favorite fitness podcasters) talk about shooting for a nutrient-dense diet filled with superfoods. Nutrient density simply describes the relationship between micro and macronutrients—a food that has a lot of micronutrients per calorie or gram of carb, fat, or protein has a high nutrient density.
You’re probably thinking that the best place to get all those healthy nutrients is by eating your body weight in vegetables, superfoods like acai berries and goji berries, and taking a good, comprehensive multivitamin supplement.
And yes, fruits, veggies, and a good quality multi are excellent sources of a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But what you might not realize is that some animal products are actually far more nutrient-dense than even the richest plant foods.
Organ meats (offal), specifically liver, are incredibly nutrient-dense food sources that can really give your daily nutrition a boost. And this could be great news if you’ve been struggling with digestive challenges, or if you are even considering trying out the controversial carnivore diet to find some relief.
The short answer to the question, “is liver good for you?” is a heck yes, it is! Let’s get into the long answer below.
Liver is a Nutrient Powerhouse
Liver doesn’t always make it to the top of the list when conventional health care professionals and dietitians recommend healthy foods. And that’s unfortunate because it’s chock full of essential nutrients that many of the more common health foods we eat every day don’t quite cover adequately.
In fact, liver is among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Compared to other foods, including muscle meat, liver has very high levels of iron, zinc, vitamin A, folate, and vitamin B12. It also contains healthy doses of selenium, riboflavin (B2), and phosphorus . In fact, liver is so nutrient-dense that you should be judicious about the type and quantity of liver you eat to make sure you don’t consume too much Vitamin A.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means your fat cells and liver hang onto it, even if you’ve consumed more than you need. Chicken liver and that of other fowl (like duck and goose) is lower in vitamin A than beef liver and liver of larger animals (pork, lamb), so can be eaten more and in greater quantity. 12,000 micrograms of vitamin A per day can mean a toxic overload to your own liver, so if beef liver is your go-to, avoid eating large amounts. Keep your serving of beef liver to no more than 3.5 oz per day . And for kids, eating liver once a week should be enough.
Health Benefits of Eating Liver
Eating liver as a regular practice a few times a week provides all the nutrients I just mentioned, but what does that mean for your health?
Consuming optimal quantities of vitamin A is important for a healthy immune system, reproduction, and vision/eye health .
Adequate iron intake prevents anemia and promotes healthy growth and development .
Folate prevents birth defects of the nervous system during early pregnancy. It’s also important for red blood cell formation .
Healthy zinc levels are critical for immune health, wound healing, and cancer prevention. It’s also important for the healthy development of a fetus during pregnancy. Zinc has also been studied for its role in healthy sleep, mental health, and acne treatment [6, 7, 8].
Vitamin B12 is critical for blood health and nervous system health, helping maintain proper brain function and cognition, healthy mood, and healthy energy levels .
Importantly, these nutrients don’t tend to be plentiful in the standard American diet, and can even be in somewhat short supply in what most would consider a healthy diet. By adding liver or other offal into your diet one to three times a week, you’re giving yourself a nutritional boost you may not otherwise get.
Are There Risks to Eating Liver?
While eating chicken liver regularly is a great dietary choice, as I mentioned above, over-eating liver can potentially lead to vitamin A toxicity. It’s important to make sure that you’re not overdoing it, even if you’re avoiding beef liver.
Additionally, lab tests have shown that the livers of farm animals (rabbit, chicken, duck, cow, goat, and turkey) are safer than those of wild animals (boar and deer). Farmed animals have a much more controlled environment, and while the general habitat of wild animals may be known, their potential exposure is far less predictable. What the studies do show is that the livers of wild animals tend to contain higher levels of cadmium, copper, and mercury. Both cadmium and mercury are harmful to human health, and copper, while healthy in doses lower than 900 mcg, is toxic at high levels as well .
Raw and undercooked foods are not recommended for pregnant or nursing women, but liver is a good source of folate (a nutrient essential to preventing birth defects and promoting healthy pregnancy), so if you plan to consume liver while pregnant, make sure it’s completely cooked through and sourced from farm animals.
Does Cooking Liver Make it Less Healthy?
There are certain nutrients that can decrease in potency during the cooking process, but that doesn’t negate liver as an incredibly potent source of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C, for example, does break down during high-heat cooking . However, folate seems to remain high and unscathed by the cooking process. Cooking methods tested in one study included sous-vide, steam, grill, and oven . The study looking at folate didn’t examine the other potent nutrients in liver, but it’s useful, particularly for pregnant women, to know that cooking liver thoroughly will still provide a healthy dose of folate.
Liver in the Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet is exactly what it sounds like—consuming only animal products to the exclusion of all plant-based foods. While on its face, this way of eating might sound excessively fatty and unhealthy, it’s actually being looked at as a potential solution to alleviating gut challenges and autoimmunity for those who have been unresponsive to other dietary and lifestyle interventions.
It’s not meant to be the type of diet you will stay on for the rest of your life, but much like many elimination diets and the elemental diet, the carnivore diet may offer a temporary break for your gut, giving it time to reset, and giving your immune system a chance to stop reacting.
If transitioned into properly, the carnivore diet can be really helpful. In our clinic, we’ve seen success in about 60–70% of the patients who try it. (We don’t recommend it to everyone and definitely not right away, but if you have a very, very sensitive system and have tried more moderate diets and other therapies, this can be worth a try as sort of the “ultimate” elimination diet.)
I interviewed Dr. Paul Saladino on my podcast to discuss this way of eating, the best way to approach it, the potential risks, and especially the potential benefits. And one of the most important details he mentioned was just how essential eating liver and other organ meats is on this kind of diet. That’s because eating liver on the carnivore diet is the best (and maybe only) way to avoid nutrient deficiency when eliminating all plant-based foods.
While Dr. Saladino seemed relatively confident that, with the inclusion of organ meats and a healthy fat-to-protein ratio (including seafood and eggs), the carnivore diet was safe and effective, he did suggest having some labs done to ensure that this type of diet isn’t causing more problems than it’s solving. Those tests included checking levels for:
Markers for oxidative stress and lipid peroxides
Red blood cell levels of selenium, magnesium, and potassium
Blood levels of zinc and manganese
This diet may seem extreme—that’s because it is. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s also far less clinically tested than the ketogenic diet for health, safety, and efficacy. Both are extremely restrictive of carbohydrates (one completely eliminates them), and both should be undertaken with proper medical advice and supervision.
Ways to Enjoy Eating Liver
You might be thinking, “this is all well and good, but liver is gross.” And that’s absolutely some people’s legitimate opinion. Sometimes, due to the high iron content, liver can have a metallic flavor, which isn’t great. But there are ways to prepare it that will take that “gamey” metallic flavor away, and there are also some great ways to “hide” liver in other foods that you already enjoy.
If you’re not interested in cooking liver yourself, there are plenty of delicious paté options out there to choose from. Duck, goose, and chicken liver paté tend to be creamy and smooth, great to go on crackers as an appetizer or snack. There are also the more “sausage”-like country patés (usually pork-based) that contain muscle meats alongside the liver if you don’t like the texture of the creamy pate.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try preparing liver yourself, your best bet is to soak it overnight in some whole milk, then toss the milk and pat the liver dry before dredging in gluten-free flour (or cornstarch), seasoning, and pan frying it with onions and garlic. The milk will draw out that metallic flavor and make the liver a lot more palatable. This is especially critical advice for beef liver.
The best way I’ve found to hide liver in other food I already love is to add chicken liver to my meatball recipes. It’s best, texture-wise, to lightly sear it first, then chop it up, mix it evenly into ground pork, then prep for meatballs. My favorite meatballs have grated hard cheese, gluten-free bread crumbs, Italian seasoning, fresh parsley, chopped celery, garlic, onion, and lemon pepper, but you can pick whatever recipe you like.
If you’ve tried all these suggestions and still can’t stand the taste of liver, there are freeze-dried liver supplements out there you can take. Look for one made with grass-fed lamb liver or beef liver, and make sure the dosage matches your body weight to ensure you don’t overdo it.
Is Liver Good for You?
So, after everything we’ve gone over, I’ll end where I began. Yes. Liver is healthy for you. Adding liver to your weekly meal plan, between one and three times a week, especially sourced from farmed fowl, is a safe and healthy way to boost your nutrient intake and maximize your health.
Liver is the unsung hero of superfoods, outperforming all manner of exotic fruits and veggies that claim that moniker. While liver is the most nutrient-dense of the organ meats, they’re all more dense than the standard cuts of muscle meats we as Americans typically eat. So adding in these various foods, whether through paté, hiding them in other foods, or simply supplementing, is a great idea for your health.
If you’ve been working on your health for a while and are finding that you can’t get past some constant roadblocks, we’re here to help. Reach out to our clinic to become a patient, and we’ll help get things moving in the right direction.
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