Liver: health food or toxic dump?

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 bookEat the Yolks.)

As you can imagine, it was my delight to tell this woman that, if I were her, I’d go right home and sauté myself a plate of my 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 good 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.

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 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. 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. 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 the 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.

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 sustain damage. A constant barrage of food and environmental toxins can make the whole animal, including the liver, sick and damaged. 

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. Did you know that cows don’t require feedlots, massive amounts of internationally shipped corn and by-products to eat, and a pen lined with its own poop? All they need is grass! And grass-fed is more expensive?!

Myth: Liver is high in Omega 6, and Omega 6 fats are bad.

As I discuss in my book, Eat the Yolkswe actually need Omega 6 as well as Omega 3 to activate the critical healing response of inflammation in the body. We need inflammation to occur at the right times, for the right reasons. 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. In short, the evidence supporting these claims are slim and based on 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.

Quite simply, liver is rich in nutrition that’s hard to find elsewhere. Here’s a summary:

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: Choline is critical, especially during pregnancy.

It’s got B vitamins: Liver is basically a 5-hour energy shot.

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.

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.

You can source your liver from local farmers, or by mail-order through White Oak Pastures, Slanker’s or US Wellness Meats.

How to cook liver

These chicken liver meatballs are an amazing place to start.

You can also use a heavy-duty cheese grater like this one to grate a small amount of frozen liver into chili, burgers, or meatballs to mask the taste. Liver pâté is also a great “starter liver.” (Babies often LOVE it!)

If you really, really, REALLY aren’t ready to eat liver, you can get some of its benefits by trying a desiccated liver supplement. 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.

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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19 Responses

  1. Liz, you and Diane talk about your morning “liver shots” made with frozen liver on the podcast. Can you please share how you make them and/or some ideas on variations ??

  2. Can you post your recipe for the liver shots you make with raw liver and egg yolks? I remember you mentioned it in a podcast but I haven’t found the recipe! Thanks for all you do!!!!

    1. Yep, that’s coming up next! I wanted to write a post that would answer some of the inevitable questions about eating liver first 🙂

  3. I tried liver and onions once. Can’t do it. The texture was what bothered me more than anything. All I could think of was the part in Hannibal where Anthony Hopkins fed Ray Liotta his own brain. (Sorry for the mental image) BUT…I am able to eat raw, frozen liver “pills”. I try to take 3-5 of them every morning, but sometimes I forget. The great thing is you get the added benefit without the taste. 🙂 And poochie loves it too!

    1. I’m sure it would be fine! I don’t know much about it, but I believe I have some lamb liver hanging out in my deep freeze.

  4. Hi Liz, girl! :)) I love the post! I wanna ask you for your permission to translate this article to my language and post it on my blog so my czech paleo/primal/real food readers can read it too! Can I, please please??? Of course with posting you as a source…

  5. Thanks for this! I’m a very NON adventurous eater and did not like most meats my whole life – so I’m trying to like them more now and also trying to work up the “guts” to try liver some day! My question (which may seem rather obvious) is, if I were to sneak it into meatballs, etc, do you grate it frozen-raw or cooked, then frozen? Btw – looking forward to the next post as well. Also, I have to say I am intrigued on trying the pills, only to start getting used to the taste, but am not crazy on taking a pill, either. Thanks again!

    1. Hey Michelle! I grate the frozen RAW liver – I just peel back the packaging, grate, then put the frozen chunk right back in the freezer for later use. I’ve never frozen cooked liver – I can’t imagine it would taste great that way. I will say that I tried the pill thing for awhile, and it grossed me out (I’ll explain more in the upcoming post) and doing it like a smoothie REALLY leaves no liver taste, and no “there’s a liver ice cube sitting in my stomach” feeling! Yuck!

  6. Yesterday I pureed some liver and mixed it with ground beef and made some yummy meatballs with zoodles! Even my 4 year old ate them up! Thanks for all your great information! Eat the Yolks is like my food bible and I am forever grateful for you opening my eyes to health!

  7. I have a bunch of liver frozen into little cubes in my freezer, and could not figure out how to hide them in food to mask the flavor more. I was originally going to try the liver pills, but was peeved about swallowing unchewed meat. I will definitely be using a grater from now on! Thank you so much, Liz!

  8. Not all liver is created equal – go figure. I have now eaten CAFO cow liver, grass fed cow liver and… just this week, pastured chicken liver. By far the chicken is “the tastiest” (if you want to call it that), and there IS a difference in taste between the grass fed and CAFO beef liver. As you’d expect, the grass fed is milder in flavor.
    “Looks like meat is back on the menu boys!”
    – Orc Leader in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

  9. I grew up with a very old school southern grandmother who made chicken or beef liver once a week for dinner, but I haven’t eaten it in years! I think its about time to change that.

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