Are Organ Meats Healthy?
At some point in our nutritional journey, we come across the idea that the regular consumption of offal or organ meats is necessary for optimal health. For some people, this can be true, especially if you’ve been eating a plant-based diet for years or if you’ve been malnourished because of disordered eating patterns (e.g., anorexia, bulimia, restricting). But for some of us, the consumption of organ meats, specifically liver and kidneys, could actually be hurting our health.
The idea of organ meats being universally good for everyone is a gross exaggeration . Many of us, especially those who are long-time carnivores or ketovore, do not need to consume organ meats to achieve optimal health. In fact, organ meats might be responsible for declining health outcomes .
Vitamin A is the main vitamin in organ meats, especially liver and kidneys . Vitamin A along with Vitamins E, D, and K are fat-soluble vitamins. These four vitamins work synergistically and when we increase one, it may deplete the others, throwing us into a vitamin imbalance. And we don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of playing around with different doses of these vitamins, as this can quickly spiral.
Healthy individuals might be able to consume organ meats, if they like them, but only sporadically and not in great quantities.
Research has found that most people suffer from excess Vitamin A and not the opposite. This is because many foods, especially in the Standard American Diet, are fortified with Vitamin A such as milk, bread, and Cheerios [5,6]. Additionally, Vitamin A is naturally found in eggs and butter. It is also present in some of our personal care products that contain retinol, and so it is absorbed through our skin and is found in many prescription acne treatments .
Even if you eat a meat-based diet, you can get plenty of Vitamin A without eating organ meats. For an adult, the daily recommended allowance of Vitamin A is 800 mcg or 2667 IU’s . If an individual were to eat 5 eggs (which is not unusual for a carnivore) and 2 tablespoons of butter they would be receiving 559 mcg or 1863 IU’s in just this single meal.
That is 70% of their daily allowance of Vitamin A.
If you were to add in organ meats you would quickly exceed the RDA levels. Foods with the highest amount of Vitamin A are Cod liver oil, beef liver, chicken liver, ghee, butter, and eggs.
The other thing we have to remember is that Vitamin A can be stored in the body, specifically in the liver . Vitamin A builds up over time as we continue to consume it. If we allow ourselves to eat more than the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A, eventually we will reach a point of Vitamin A toxicity, and our livers will suffer.
However, if you already have an imbalanced liver due to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, liver toxicity, or even liver congestion, you can overdo it and damage your liver quickly, because the liver stores between 80-90% of the body’s Vitamin A [9,10].
Signs of Vitamin A toxicity :
- Bone and joint pain
- Dermatological issues: such as drying, peeling, itchy skin, and cracked lips
- Generalized weakness, fatigue, and headaches
- Hair loss
- Increased Cerebral spinal pressure
- Liver and spleen enlargement
- Nail infections
- Upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting
Remember that these do not usually happen overnight and can take years to manifest.
If you experience some of these symptoms and consume a lot of organ meats or take cod liver oil supplements, consume eggs, butter, milk, and ghee, you could be suffering from Vitamin A toxicity, and should drastically limit your consumption of it.
It takes a couple of years to deplete the body of vitamin A storage.
A study conducted in 2018 on cadavers showed that 33% of cadavers surveyed had Vitamin A toxicity in their livers . In this study, researchers realized that most people are Vitamin A toxic rather than deficient, yet food companies continue to fortify most foods. This makes it easy to overconsume Vitamin A and quickly develop toxicity.
Testing for Vitamin A levels is challenging because bloodwork of Vitamin A is only a snapshot of actual levels in the body . Vitamin A levels in the blood are usually found within the normal range, even if they are technically toxic. The reason is that the blood likes to keep everything in the body balanced and in homeostasis.
The excess Vitamin A is stored in the liver instead of circulating in the blood . It’s why your Vitamin A markers can come back normal. The ideal way to tell if you have Vitamin A toxicity is through a liver biopsy, and this doesn’t normally happen as it’s very invasive.
If you determine you have many of the symptoms found above and regularly consume organ meats, try laying off for a long while and notice if your symptoms improve.
You could reintroduce it once you start feeling better, but only do so minimally and sporadically.
And while this article talks about excess organ consumption and risks of vitamin A, there are additional risks of excess copper and purine levels that increase uric acid and risks of gout [14,15].
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you hate the taste of liver, like me, this is good news. You need not consume it to be healthy. Our ancestors likely did not consume very much liver. This is because in a 1300 pound ruminant animal there is likely only around 13-15 pounds of liver . You would be eating far more muscle meat than organs if any.
If you are wondering if liver consumption is for you, consider the following:
- Track all the sources of Vitamin A in your diet, including fortified foods.
- Remember that all Vitamin A bioaccumulates, so you may have even more stored than you might realize.
- Vitamin A can also come from skin care products such as retinoic acid and Accutane.
- Considering your family health history, is there a liver and kidney disease pattern?
- Vitamin A has a long half-life in the body and tends to accumulate in the fatty deposits in your liver. Even if your blood levels look healthy, you still might be toxic.
- Honor the body. If your body is craving liver, you might need the nutrients in the organ meat. If it tastes horrible to you, this could be your body’s way of protecting you from vitamin A toxicity.
You can always remove it for a couple of month like an elimination diet, and document how you feel. Always trust your body’s innate wisdom.
If you enjoy liver, have no liver health imbalances, and don’t have symptoms of vitamin A toxicity, then you may be able to enjoy liver occasionally. But if you don’t enjoy liver, are struggling with liver health and show some of the vitamin A symptoms, you may want to stay away as liver and organ meats are not required for optimal health.
Heather Aydelott is a holistic nutritionist, college professor of Natural Sciences, yoga instructor, and an advocate for mind-body healing. Heather is part of the Nutrition with Judy Nutritional Therapy team. Learn more at nutritionwithjudy.com
This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.