Liver is a low calorie food with many health benefits. However, it may not be a good option for everyone.

Once a popular and treasured food source, liver has fallen out of favor with some consumers (1).

It could be seen as disappointing nutrition-wise because liver is rich in protein and packed with essential vitamins and minerals.

This article takes a detailed look at liver.

What is liver?

The liver is a vital organ in humans and animals. It is typically the largest internal organ and has many important functions, including:

  • producing bile which helps with digestion
  • storing glycogen, iron, vitamins, and other essential nutrients
  • filtering and clearing drugs and toxins from the blood

Liver, along with other organ meats, used to be a very popular food. However, muscle meats now tend to be favored over organ meats (1).

Regardless of its declining popularity, liver is a highly nutrient-dense food.

A 100-gram (g) serving of liver provides (2, 3):

  • 189 calories
  • 29 g of protein
  • 5 g of fat
  • 5 g of carbohydrates

Liver is cheap and readily available from grocery stores and butchers. While most animal livers can be eaten, common sources are cow, chicken, duck, lamb, and pig, especially in European countries.

Liver is a great source of several nutrients

Here are the nutrients found in a 3.5-ounce (100-g) serving of beef liver (2, 3):

  • Vitamin B12: 2,917% of the daily value (DV). Vitamin B12 helps the formation of red blood cells and DNA. It is also involved in healthy brain function (4).
  • Vitamin A: 104% of the DV. Vitamin A is important for healthy vision, immune function, and reproduction. It also helps the heart function properly (5).
  • Riboflavin (B2): 261% of the DV. Riboflavin is important for cellular development and function. It also helps turn food into energy (6).
  • Folate (B9): 63% of the DV. Folate is an essential nutrient that plays a role in cell growth and the formation of DNA (7).
  • Iron: 36% of the DV. Iron is another essential nutrient that helps carry oxygen around the body. The iron in liver is heme iron, the kind the body most easily absorbs (8, 9).
  • Copper: 1,578% of the DV. Copper acts like a key to activate a number of enzymes, which then help regulate energy production, iron metabolism, and brain function (10).
  • Choline: Liver provides 77% of the DV. Choline is important for brain development and liver function (11, 12).

Liver provides high quality protein

Protein is vital to life and is found in every cell in the human body. It’s required to repair and make new cells in the body.

Over one-quarter of beef liver is made up of protein. Being an animal-based protein, it provides all the essential amino acids (2).

Amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins. The body can make some amino acids, but those known as essential amino acids must come from food.

High protein intake has been shown to help with weight loss, as it reduces hunger and appetite. Additionally, protein has been found to satisfy hunger better than fat or carbs (13).

Furthermore, high protein intake can boost your metabolic rate, or the number of calories your body uses to function (14).

Having a higher metabolic rate means you use more calories, which can be useful for weight loss, particularly if combined with a reduced calorie intake.

Lastly, a high protein intake can help build muscle and protect against muscle loss while losing weight (15, 16, 17).

At the same time, some studies warn that excessive long-term protein consumption, especially from animal protein, is associated with kidney, bone, or liver disorders, and cardiovascular disease (18, 19).

Common concerns about eating liver

Many people have concerns about eating liver and wonder whether it’s unhealthy.

One of the most common questions is whether its cholesterol content is a problem.

While liver is high in cholesterol, this isn’t an issue for most people.

People used to believe that cholesterol in food caused heart disease. However, more recent research has shown the relationship between dietary cholesterol and cholesterol in the body to not be as straightforward (20, 21).

Current recommendations still suggest eating high cholesterol foods in moderation in the context of a balanced, nutritious diet (22, 23).

Around a quarter of the population appears to be more sensitive to cholesterol in food. For these individuals, eating cholesterol-rich foods can increase blood cholesterol (20).

Among other concerns, one recent study found a modest risk increase nonalcoholic fatty liver disease from a diet high in organ meats, but the study is small, and more research is needed (22).

Some studies have also indicated a link between a diet high in liver and other organ meats and the risk of bladder cancer. Again, more research is needed (23).

Liver may not be for everyone

There are certain groups who may want to avoid eating liver.

Pregnant people

Concerns regarding the safety of liver intake during pregnancy are largely due to its vitamin A content.

High intake of preformed vitamin A, the type found in liver, was linked to birth defects in a 1995 study (26).

The tolerable upper intake of vitamin A for adults is 3,000 micrograms of retinol activity equivalents (mcg RAE). Experts advise those who are pregnant or lactating not to exceed this amount of supplemental vitamin A per day (5).

Nevertheless, 1 ounce (28.5 grams) of beef liver contains 2,650 mcg of vitamin A, which is close to the tolerable upper intake level for vitamin A during pregnancy. This is a very small amount, so quantities must be monitored (2, 5).

Speaking with a healthcare professional about the best dietary plan for your pregnancy is important.

Those with gout

Gout is a type of arthritis caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. Symptoms include pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints.

Liver is high in purines, which form uric acid in the body. It is therefore important to avoid liver, other organ meats, and anchovies if you have gout (27).

How to include liver in your diet

Liver has a unique taste, which some people love and others dislike.

Here are some suggestions on how to include it in your diet:

  • Pan-frying it: Liver works well when pan-fried with onions.
  • Using it in Spaghetti Bolognese: Liver can be chopped or minced and then mixed with regular ground beef. Calf or chicken livers work best.
  • Making burgers: As with Bolognese, chop or mince the liver and mix it with ground beef to make seriously nutritious burgers.
  • Adding plenty of seasoning: Adding lots of spices and strong flavors can help disguise its taste.
  • Using lamb or calf liver: Both have a milder flavor than beef.
  • Soaking the liver in milk or lemon juice before cooking: This can reduce its strong flavor.

The bottom line

Liver is low in calories and rich in high quality protein, all while providing an incredible amount of vital nutrients. For most people, liver can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. However, it should be eaten in limited amounts if you are pregnant and avoided if you have gout.