Eating Liver During Pregnancy: Should You?

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Liver is a nutritional powerhouse and contains nutrients that are especially beneficial to pregnant women. 

So why has it typically been recommended to avoid eating liver during pregnancy? 

Do those guidelines still hold true today?

And what about beef liver capsules?

This article will delve into what the latest research shows about eating liver during pregnancy, safety measures to keep in mind and follow, and whether you should consider beef liver capsules instead.

Let’s dive in!

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Liver: The Nutritional Powerhouse

Liver is packed with nutrients, whether it’s chicken, beef, cod, or other types of liver. It’s high in protein, vitamin A, iron, and other important vitamins and minerals. 

For example, 4 ounces (about 115 grams) of beef liver contains:

  • 23 grams of protein
  • 6 mg of iron
  • 354 mg of potassium
  • Over 5,600 mg of vitamin A! 
  • 328 mg of folate
  • 153 calories
  • Naturally low in sodium (78 mg) 

Liver is high in cholesterol, however – that same 4 oz of beef liver has 304 mg of the stuff (USDA food database)

While the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines removed the recommendation for limiting cholesterol intake to under 300 mg per day, they still encourage people to try eating as little of it as possible (1). This recommendation remains in place today, according to the latest US Dietary Guidelines update from 2020 (2).

Benefits of Eating Liver During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, iron needs shoot up from 8 mg per day to 27 mg per day! That’s a lot. It can be hard for anyone to get so much iron and pregnancy food aversions, cravings, and morning sickness can make it all the harder. 

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is especially high in pregnant women, with more than half of them affected by it (3, 4). 

Iron is necessary for your red blood cells to carry oxygen in your body. During pregnancy, your blood volume can double or triple in volume, which is why your iron needs skyrocket. 

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy include:

  • Feeling short of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling cold (especially hands and feet)
  • Pale skin

Besides you not feeling well, iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy can hurt your growing little one. It can result in low birth weight, premature birth, low iron stores in your newborn, and developmental delays (5). 

How eating liver during pregnancy can help:

One 4-ounce serving of beef liver has 6 mg of the 27 mg of daily iron you need during pregnancy. The same amount of chicken liver has even more iron – 10 mg according to the USDA’s food database

Not only that, but liver contains a type of iron called heme iron (iron from animal sources, like meat and eggs) that is easily absorbed by your body. 

Nonheme iron, which is iron from plant sources like beans and nuts, is less readily available for your body to use. 

Here are some other high iron pregnancy food choices:

  • 4 ounces of ground beef has 3 mg of iron
  • 1 can of sardines (3.75 ounces) has 3 mg of iron
  • 4 ounces of turkey has 2 mg of iron
  • ½ cup of dried apricots has 2 mg of iron
  • ½ cup of black beans or chickpeas has 2 mg of iron
  • 1 large egg has 0.6 mg of iron

Increased Protein Needs

Besides your iron needs increasing during pregnancy, so do your protein needs! One study with 528 subjects found that 1 in 8 pregnant women weren’t eating enough protein during their second and third trimesters (6).

How Liver Can Help:

Liver is a good source of protein. As an animal protein, it contains all the amino acids. As mentioned above, 4 ounces of beef liver provides 23 grams of protein.

Prevent Neural Tube Defects

Women who are able to become pregnant, regardless of whether they are even trying to conceive, are advised to consume 400 micrograms of folate every day (7)

The reason this is so important is that folate (or the synthetic form, folic acid) helps to prevent neural tube defects in babies. This critical developmental stage occurs in the first few weeks of pregnancy. That’s before many women even know they are pregnant.

Without enough folate, your baby’s spinal cord or brain could fail to develop properly.

How Eating Liver Can Help:

There are  328 micrograms (mcg) of folate in 4 ounces of raw beef liver. To put that in perspective, you’d have to eat 5 cups of spinach – another great source of folate – to get the same amount as in beef liver.

Chicken liver is an even better source of folate. According to the USDA database, 4 oz of raw chicken liver has 664 mcg of folate.

More high folate foods:

  • 1 cup raw spinach – 58 mcg
  • 1 cup raw broccoli – 57 mcg
  • 1 cup raw collard greens – 46 mcg
  • ½ cup kidney beans – 46 mcg
  • 1 egg – 22 mcg

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Risks of Eating Liver During Pregnancy

Vitamin A Toxicity 

The main concern about eating liver during pregnancy is the risk of vitamin A toxicity. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient during pregnancy but like many things in life, too much of a good thing can be bad.

It’s recommended that pregnant women consume 800 mcg of vitamin A per day (8)

But, 4 oz of beef liver contains a whopping 5,620 mcg of vitamin A!

Chicken liver has less vitamin A but still a lot: 3,730 mcg in 4 oz. 

The concerns for birth defects in humans due to vitamin A toxicity seem to mostly be in cases where the mothers were ingesting large amounts of vitamin A, mostly through supplements, on a regular basis. 

There haven’t been many human studies because of ethical concerns. In general, consuming under 3,000 micrograms of Vitamin A per day does not seem to increase the risk for birth defects (9, 10, 11, 12).

Food Safety

Pregnant women are at greater risk when it comes to foodborne illness. This can have devastating consequences for the babies they carry.

Many liver paté recipes recommend not fully cooking the liver. 

One recipe, for example, says to cook the liver until it’s “barely pink inside.” Another popular recipe that I found at the top of search results says the liver should be cooked “brown on the outside but still be pink on the inside.” 

These put anyone at risk for foodborne illness, and especially the most susceptible people in society: babies and young children, pregnant women, older people, and others who are immuno-compromised. 

Therefore, as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I advise that pregnant women completely avoid eating liver paté unless they are sure it has been fully cooked. 

Should You Eat Liver if You’re Expecting?

More research needs to be done but given ethical concerns, that research likely won’t be coming anytime soon.

In the meantime, if you want to eat liver during pregnancy, moderation is key! 

  1. Don’t eat liver on a daily basis. You can likely eat liver a couple of times a month without harm, but of course it’s always good to check with your doctor or prenatal dietitian who will know your personal medical history.
  2. When you do eat liver, consider consuming small amounts that you’ve mixed in with other meats. For example, you can mix 1 ounce of raw beef liver (which contains under 2,000 mcg vitamin A) with ground beef or turkey for a bolognese or hamburgers.
  3. Be aware of how much vitamin A you’re getting elsewhere in your diet. In particular, check how much is in your prenatal vitamin. This is not a recommendation to stop taking your prenatal – instead, this is an exercise for you to see how much vitamin A you’d get if you eat liver on top of taking your prenatal. Your prenatal contains many vital nutrients that you need during pregnancy so you should continue unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

Safe Preparation for Eating Liver During Pregnancy

  • Always make sure to wash your hands before and after food preparation.
  • The CDC recommends against washing any meat or poultry in the sink before cooking because it can spread bacteria to your sink, counters, etc.
  • Prepare food on a clean and sanitized surface.
  • Prevent cross-contamination. Do not cut raw beef liver on one cutting board and then prepare raw vegetables for salad on the same board without washing in between.
  • Do not use expired liver or liver that looks or smells “off.”
  • Use a food thermometer to ensure that your liver has been cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160℉. 
  • Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of finishing cooking/serving. Your refrigerator should be kept at under 40℉. The CDC recommends eating your leftovers within 3-4 days. If you plan on freezer storage, the official US Food Safety site says cooked meat or poultry will keep for 2-6 months in a freezer set at below 0℉ . Always reheat your leftovers fully.

What About Beef Liver Capsules?

One beef liver supplement that I found recommends a 4 capsule serving. It claims to contain 3g of beef liver, 1,500 mcg of vitamin A, 0.6 mcg of iron (not much), and 55 mcg of folate. 

Another brand recommends taking 6 capsules a day . It doesn’t say anything about how much beef liver is even in the capsule. It also doesn’t specify the amount of vitamin A or folate in each capsule.

A third brand boasts that each capsule contains 500 mg of “beef liver powder.” Other ingredients are listed as “rice flour, gelatin, magnesium stearate, silica” – no amounts specified.

Given the problems with the regulation (or lack thereof) of supplements in the United States, it’s hard for me to recommend spending your money on beef liver capsules (13). They are unnecessary and their labels can be confusing or even misleading. This could potentially be dangerous and during pregnancy. Is it really worth the risk?

Key Takeaways 

Liver is a good source of protein, iron, folate, potassium, vitamin A, and other nutrients.

Women have higher nutritional needs during pregnancy. In particular, it’s often hard for pregnant women to consume the recommended 27 mg of iron each day and 400 mcg of folate each day. Deficiencies can lead to poor outcomes for both mother and child.

Liver can help to fill these nutritional gaps. 

But, due to its especially high vitamin A content, eating liver during pregnancy traditionally is not recommended. There are not many studies on humans, but vitamin A toxicity can potentially cause birth defects.

The small amount of research that does exist suggests that moderate intake of vitamin A – up to 3,000 mcg (5,000 IU) per day – does not seem to be associated with birth defects. 

Remember, just 4 oz of beef liver contains more than that amount.

If you want to eat liver during pregnancy, do so sparingly and make sure to always cook it fully. Be aware of how much vitamin A you’re consuming elsewhere in your diet, including your prenatal vitamin. 

For personalized recommendations, you should always talk to your doctor or prenatal dietitian. 

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Meredith Mishan is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with over 12 years of experience working with nutrition clients from around the world. She has a Master of Science degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from Florida International University and is credentialed as a dietitian in both the United States and Israel.

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