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At a recent book signing, I got to speak to a woman who, despite being raised on (and absolutely loving) liver ‘n onions, had given up her favorite dish out of fear of its cholesterol content. Animal foods, after all, are full of cholesterol – and liver is no exception. And cholesterol is bad, right?
(If you responded “right!” please grab a copy of my book, Eat the Yolks. Cholesterol is not bad – in fact, not only is it a natural, nourishing substance that's essential to our ability to build critical hormones, but the oft-proposed associations and long-unproven causal connections between cholesterol and heart disease absolutely crumble under scrutiny.)
As you can imagine, it was my delight to tell this woman that I wanted her to go right home and sauté herself a plate of her old favorite. It's rare enough that someone actually likes to eat liver – so it was a real treat to “give her liver back!” (I got a report from her son the next day – she'd called all her kids to let them know that liver was back on her menu!) *heart melts*
Of course, I “gave her liver back” with a few qualifications. First, she needed to choose liver from pasture-raised cows or chickens, as animal products are only as healthy and “natural” as the environment in which those animals are raised. Second, she needed to not eat it sandwiched between two Twinkies dipped in Oreo cookie crumbs.
That second part probably went without saying.
Seriously, though – once you've got food quality down, the rest kinda falls into place.
And once you've read this blog post, the myths and misconceptions about liver fall right off the conventional wisdom cliff.
Unfortunately, it's not just fear of cholesterol (which I tackle at length, with references, in my book) that has us shakin' in our Nikes when it comes to liver. There are quite a few myths about eating liver – although I think they hang around NOT because they make any biological sense, but because people really really no really don't want to eat it. They want it to stay in “danger food” land, taking up the space that should be occupied by modern processed crap, like so-called “whole grains” and other cardboard garbage dressed up as health food.
Liver is a super-food, and has been valued as such for centuries by cultures around the world – for good reason. (I included liver as one of my top skin care superfoods in my Purely Primal Skincare Guide.) Adding liver to my diet has absolutely changed my life – it's one of the few foods that has had immediate, tangible effects on my health – so I'm thrilled to bring these myths and truths to the surface.
Here are the myths we've been told about liver (and the plain truths):
Myth: The liver stores toxins! When we eat liver, we're just eating a big mess of toxic waste. This is simply biologically false. The liver isn't a storage organ. That is not its biological function. It's an organ that packages, inactivates, and disables toxic substances (some of us are more full o' toxins than others, much like some animals – like the factory-farmed kind – are more full of toxins than pasture-raised ones). This myth is simply a misunderstanding of the liver's biological function: while we can certainly say the liver deals with toxins, the disabling and exporting of toxins is entirely different from the storing of toxins.
When it comes to toxins, think of the liver as a filter, not a storage tank. Under normal circumstances, stuff that needs to get th' heck out passes through once the liver has done its work; and from there, the body gets rid of 'em – whether through waste or by shuttling them to ACTUAL storage spots: fat and nerve tissue.
(Yep, fat and nerve tissue CAN store toxins; another reason why I eat only pasture-raised animal fat.)
The liver does, however, store nutrients – another important part of its job – which I'll discuss below.
Now, all that said, the liver absolutely CAN become sick and damaged (perhaps the word “toxic” has been mistakenly used to express damaged, causing confusion). A constant barrage of food and environmental toxins – like the ones to which animals raised in feedlots on biologically inappropriate feed and a litany of industrial medications are exposed hour by hour, every day of their lives – can make the whole animal, including the liver, sick and damaged. A sick, damaged animal makes sick, damaged food – whatever part of that animal is eaten.
(That's part of the reason our modern food system pisses me off so much. It's actually harder and generally more expensive to get real, good food; even though the real, good food requires fewer unnatural, industrial inputs. Put a cow on grass – you'll see what I mean.)
The most nutrient-rich parts of the healthiest animals remain the healthiest foods for humans, and the liver, with its incredible array of nutrients, certainly qualifies.
Myth: Liver is high in purines, which cause gout. Chris Kresser, a leader in the ancestral health movement, sheds light on this myth in this post.
Myth: Liver is high in Arachidonic Acid (ie Omega 6), and Omega 6 fats are bad. as I discuss in my book, Eat the Yolks, we actually need Omega 6 to activate the critical healing response of inflammation in the body. We need inflammation to heal; and we need anti-inflammatory fats to resolve the healing process at the right time. A diet rich in both healthy, natural sources of Omega 6 along with healthy, natural sources of Omega 3 is the ticket.
Myth: Liver is too high in vitamin A, which is toxic in high doses and can cause birth defects and osteoporosis. I also tackle this myth in the Nutrients section of Eat the Yolks, a section that was largely informed by Masterjohn's work. In short, the evidence supporting this conjecture is slim and based limited, poorly-structured studies, and thanks to vitamin A's profound effects on everything from eyesight to fertility to fetal development to muscle synthesis, this is a myth worth ditching. Immediately.
(Remember, beta-carotene is NOT the same as true vitamin A. It's a vitamin A precursor, that can sometimes be converted to true vitamin A in the body; this conversion has been shown to be unreliable at best.)
Isolated, synthetic vitamin A – like any synthetic nutrient in isolation – could certainly cause problems because nutrients, in nature, occur together for a friggin' reason. I discuss the concept of nutrient synergy in Eat the Yolks, but here's the summary: nutrients occur together in food because they need each other to work properly in the body. The synergy among vitamins A, D and K2 – another topic studied in-depth by Masterjohn – is a compelling example of this concept.
Guess what occurs together in liver? Vitamins A, D and K2.
Here's why liver is an amazing health food:
More recently, researchers have found vitamin A to be important to many other processes. These include preventing childhood mortality, preventing childhood asthma, promoting pubertal development, protecting against oxidative stress, protecting against environmental toxins, preventing kidney stones, regulating the amount of fat tissue in the body, regulating blood sugar, and protecting against fatty liver disease. -Chris Masterjohn, PhD (reference, sources)
Quite simply, liver is rich in nutrition that's hard to find elsewhere. For a far-reaching, well-referenced rundown, see this post by Chris Masterjohn, PhD.
It's got vitamins A, D and K2: these fat-soluble vitamins lay the foundation for overall human health, fetal development, cardiovascular health, and a strong immune system, and they're all found in liver.
It's got choline: Have a look at what Masterjohn has to say about choline, particularly with reference to the liver.
It's basically a 5-hour energy shot: B vitamins and amino acids are exactly what the 5-hour Energy empire is built upon. Liver has B Vitamins in abundance, especially B12, as well as amino acids that literally (in my experience) provide an immediate shot of energy much like a B12 injection. Dang, that stuff is powerful (I'll write about this in an upcoming post).
It's basically a prenatal: As a pregnancy food, liver is rich in folate, micronutrients, fat-soluble vitamins, DHA, and all the other amazing nutrients that build a healthy baby. There's no substitute in a box, bag or capsule.
How to choose liver:
Simple: choose liver from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows and bison or pasture-raised chickens. The liver should be so deeply colored that it appears almost purple – like in this photo:
How to cook liver:
If you really, really, REALLY aren't ready to eat liver, you can get some of its amazing benefits by trying a desiccated liver supplement, like this one. (If you choose to go that route, don't totally give up on trying the real stuff. Just kick the idea around – one day, you might be ready.)
Most of us could eat up to an ounce each day (or more a few times each week) without worrying about a thing. As with all real food, be sure you're also mixing in plenty of other sources of nutrition – like egg yolks, vegetables, wild-caught fish, and other pasture-raised animal products.
What have I missed? What are your thoughts? Your favorite ways to eat liver? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
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