Liver: The Underrated Superfood with Every Nutrient You Need
There are many health benefits of eating liver, but before we dive in, let’s start with an overview. Liver is something most people have either been forced to eat, or have enjoyed as a Pâté, but it’s rarely thought of as a superfood. Ever noticed it gives off an odd, metallic sort of smell? That’s the vitamins and minerals you’re smelling, and liver contains them in higher concentrations than fruits and vegetables do.
Liver can help prevent some of the most common nutrient deficiencies, including vitamins D, B12 and K2 deficiencies. If you’re convinced you don’t like liver, you may change your mind by the time you’ve learned all the ways it benefits your physical and mental health.
In this post, we’ll look at the upsides to eating liver and give you some tips on how you can add the best sources of liver to your diet.
Liver contains virtually every vitamin, mineral and healthy fat your body requires. Not only that, but it contains nutrients in their most bioavailable forms, and in the appropriate proportions you need relative to one another. Whereas supplements can sometimes cause nutrient imbalances, getting your nutrition from nutrient-dense whole foods like liver can ensure you’re getting what you need.
The other problem with supplements is that they’re often derived from synthetic sources, which are harder for your body to assimilate. Even if they’re extracted from an animal or plant, the nutrients have had the chance to oxidize because they’re exposed and no longer within their whole form. The essential nutrients in liver are so potent because they haven’t oxidized, and the animal has already converted the nutrients from plants into the most bioavailable form for humans, so that nothing is lost in the process of converting.
Liver is packed with fat-soluble vitamins, which are vitamins that need to be taken with a quality fat source to be absorbed and used by the body. Since liver is a source of healthy fats, there’s all the more reason you should eat liver to improve your nutritional status.
The nutrients liver contains in high concentrations are known to play vital roles in brain development in children, and in protecting your brain from disease and cognitive decline as you age. The major nutrients in liver that help your brain are omega-3 fats and choline.
The food you eat need to fuel your brain, as well as make up its very fabric. Your brain is nearly 60 percent fat, so it’s important to have essential fatty acids in your daily diet. In fact, studies have shown that patients with neurodegenerative diseases have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Increasing omega-3 intake has been shown to slow cognitive decline in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease . Omega-3s are important for brain function no matter your age, because it keeps brain cell membranes strong and supports their ability to receive and transmit signals around the brain. If you don’t like eating fish for your omega-3s, you now have another option!
The two forms of omega-3 fatty acids we need are DPA and EPA. There’s also ALA, which is found in some plant foods, but your body only converts a small percentage of it to the DPA and EPA you need. DPA is the fat that plays a critical role in your brain, whereas EPA is good for your heart and keeping inflammation at bay. Grass fed beef liver contains 283 mg of DPA per 100 grams of liver, making it a powerful brain food .
Choline is an essential nutrient your body needs to synthesize acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter involved in memory function and in the communication throughout your nervous system. Studies have linked higher intakes of choline during pregnancy to lower rates of neural tube defects in babies, indicating its importance in brain development .
Interestingly, other research shows that higher choline intake in older people is associated with higher memory performance and resistance to cognitive decline . 68 grams of beef liver, which is just 1 slice, contains 290 mg of choline. Men require 550 mg of choline daily, and women require 425 mg. This means just 2 slices of beef liver can provide more than your daily requirement.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin our skin can absorb from sunlight, but when you’re not exposed to sun during the winter or while indoors all day, you need it from food sources. Liver is one of the rare foods that actually contains vitamin D naturally. In fact, it’s an abundant and highly bioavailable source. Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which are minerals that make up bone. Without vitamin D, these minerals are excreted instead of used to build strong bones. Shockingly, as much as 45 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D . Including liver in your diet is one of the best ways to prevent deficiency.
Another bone-building nutrient that’s often neglected is vitamin K2. Vitamin K1 is the form of vitamin K found in plants, but your body requires sufficient amounts of K2 from animal sources to perform vital functions. While your body can convert some vitamin K1 into K2, you have to consume huge amounts of vitamin K-rich vegetables to get enough. Liver is probably the most potent food source of vitamin K2. K2 activates a protein in your body called osteocalcin, which is required for the deposit of calcium into your bones.
By transporting calcium from the bloodstream and into your bones, vitamin K2 helps your heart. When calcium stays in the bloodstream, it starts to harden in the blood vessel walls and increase your risk of atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries,” as well as heart attack and stroke . Vitamin K2 reverses and prevents this calcification, and it also helps your heart and blood vessels by acting as an antioxidant .
Liver is a great source of potassium, which is known to lower high blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke . Copper is another nutrient in liver that acts as an antioxidant, and it’s been proven in lab studies to defend against oxidative damage to cells. Due to its role in protecting against free radicals, higher copper intakes are associated with a lower risk of atherosclerosis, hypertension and heart disease . Meanwhile, copper deficiency can cause high blood pressure and metabolic issues like impaired glucose tolerance and fat metabolism . By giving your body an ample supply of essential nutrients and keeping harmful deficiencies at bay, liver can help regulate your cardiovascular health.
Anemia is a condition of having low iron levels, and its symptoms include dizziness, headaches, fatigue and chills. Many people are told to take iron supplements to reverse anemia. However, they don’t always see results.
Iron supplements are among the most difficult supplements for your body to absorb, because scientists haven’t found a way to extract or replicate the highly absorbable form of iron found in animal sources, called heme iron. Some vegetables, nuts, beans and grains contain non-heme iron, which is less absorbable than heme iron. If you need to increase your iron status quickly, eating beef liver is the best way to do it. Just 85 grams of beef liver contains 15.2 mg of iron. Seeing as men only need 8 mg a day and menstruating women need 18 mg, you can see why it’s such a powerful source.
No matter your age, getting enough iron is critical for every function in your body, because it builds your blood. You need enough blood circulating in your body to deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout cells and organs, and without iron, it’s impossible. In infants, low iron status has been linked to slower blood flow in the brain . Meanwhile, iron deficiency causes a higher rate of stroke in older adults .
The idea that the liver stores toxins is a myth. The liver’s job is to remove toxins from the blood by converting them into forms the body can excrete. The toxins don’t stay there, as they’re released back into the bloodstream. What liver does store, however is fat-soluble nutrients. Toxins in liver are not an issue, so it certainly should not be avoided for this reason.
Livers from different animals have different nutrient densities. You can’t go wrong with beef liver, veal liver or lamb liver, and turkey liver is another good source. Chicken liver has less nutritional density, but it’s still good for you. In general, livers that are darker and that give off a more metallic smell are higher in nutritional content. Grass fed liver has more nutritional potency than conventionally farmed grain fed liver, but otherwise there’s nothing wrong with it. Beef liver is even available in capsules, but the best way to get the benefits of liver is to eat it.
If you don’t like the taste of liver, soak it in milk or lemon juice for an hour before cooking it, and then add plenty of seasoning as you cook it. Lamb liver has a milder taste than beef liver, with a similar nutritional profile. Try mincing or grinding liver and mixing it with regular ground meat to make tacos, burgers or meatballs.
Eating liver meats from various animals used to be a lot more common than it is now. As our food has become more processed and its sources more ambiguous, many think of liver as a gross or even toxic food to be avoided. However, our ancestors ate organ meats like liver regularly, and had lower rates of the diseases we experience today that are linked to nutrient deficiencies. While supplements are helpful and have been shown to shore up deficiencies, liver offers one of the most potent, whole-food sources of nutrition nature can offer us.