Beef Liver: The Bodybuilder's Superfood
Written by Dr. Juan Carlos Cassano, aka The Golden Bookworm
Liver as a food and supplement to the bodybuilding diet has been around for a long time, and to most people that are aware of this association may assume that liver was used only during the golden era of bodybuilding. The truth is that liver has been used in bodybuilding for way longer, and in fact, has its association with the bodybuilding diet for at least one century! Vince Gironda was one of the biggest advocates of taking liver, once famously stating:
“TRY THIS TRICK:
Take 2 desiccated liver tablets every hour for two weeks and watch your measurements grow. I put one inch on my arm measurement without any extra workouts”.
Although this statement from Vince may sound a little far-fetched to some, the point Vince was trying to make was that liver itself is one of bodybuilders superfoods. Having such a long history as part of a bodybuilders supplement regime is a testament to its effectiveness, however, in recent times it has lost its popularity. This may be attributed to the notion that old school bodybuilding nutrition is antiquated and obsolete, however, modern science has proven that this is far from the truth.
The use of liver in the bodybuilders' diet can be traced at least to the Silver Era, that is the period between the 1930s up to the early 1950s when nutritional guru Gayelord Hauser promoted the values of wonder foods such as liver, yogurt, brewers yeast, powdered skim milk, wheat germ, and blackstrap molasses. In George Helmer’s classic, The Steve Reeves Hercules Cookbook, we learn that Steve Reeves had read several of Gayelord Hauser’s Nutrition books and was specifically interested in the benefits of several vitamins and minerals, and wonder foods such as liver and wheat germ.
Approved by Hercules
Gayelord Hauser was the original nutritional guru to the celebrities and stars during the 1920s, and bodybuilders followed suit. It is therefore not surprising that Silver Era bodybuilders, who were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of correct nutrition adopted the preachings of Hauser. In The Steve Reeves Hercules Cookbook, George Helmer gives the recipe of one of Steve Reeves’ favourite meals, Baked Chicken Livers! In an interview with golden era amateur bodybuilder and photographer, Stephen Downs shared in an interview with me, that Steve Reeves once mentioned that the only two supplements he would ever take or recommend to bodybuilders were Liver and Wheat Germ Oil! Now that’s saying a lot!
On the same light, I happen to own many Reg Park brochures from his company The Reg Park Barbell Company, which document how Reg Park had begun to sell his own line of supplements. Reg Park only sold a few supplements, and these were the supplements he trusted to work. It is no surprise that within the line of supplements, the 3 x Mr. Universe Champion and legendary bodybuilding icon would put Liver Tablets as one of the best supplements that a bodybuilder should take.
Rheo H Blair
When one talks about Old School Bodybuilding Nutrition, one simply cannot escape the influence and impact that Rheo H Blair had on the industry, especially during the Silver and Golden Era. During this classic era of bodybuilding, Blair’s nutritional influence helped create some of the greatest physiques ever seen. Besides revolutionizing the protein supplements industry with his infamous “Blair’s Protein”, Rheo H Blair would continue to praise the effectiveness of liver for the bodybuilder. His liver extract was one of the first supplements he ever sold and was a major part of his “protein program”, with incredible transformations achieved by many of his clients who participated in his nutritional experiments. Once champion bodybuilders caught on, liver extracts and later tablets were being sold by the thousands.
Enter the Iron Guru. Vince Gironda was probably the greatest proponents of taking Liver. The liver that Vince would sell through his company, NSP nutrition was desiccated or dried liver, and described as follows:
Natural Source Beef Liver is formulated from the finest whole, raw beef liver imported from Argentina. The liver is desiccated (dried) in a special vacuum process at body temperature (37 ⁰C) which preserves all of the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and amino acids. Beef Liver Extract is better than raw, whole liver because it contains only trace amounts of fat, fiber, cholesterol, and moisture. Furthermore, the nutritional value of Beef Liver Extract is 4.5 times greater than that of whole, raw beef liver”.
The “Rat Experiments”
Vince Gironda in many ways could be described as a nutritional scientist for bodybuilders. He backed up his claims on the wonders of liver by referencing an early animal experiment which showcased the power of liver for an athlete:
“Desiccated Liver, the Wonder Energy Food! In a recent laboratory test for an anti-fatigue diet, three groups of rats were used, having been fed for a short time on different diets. The first group were fed a usual lab diet with the addition of nine synthetic and two natural vitamins. The second group of rats were fed this with the addition of all the known Vitamin B's. The third group ate the original (diet with 10% desiccated liver added instead of vitamins. Each rat was then placed in a drum of water from which he could not climb out. The impressive results were as follows: The first group swam an average of 13.3 minutes and gave up. The second group swam about 13.4 minutes, but the third group-those fed desiccated liver swam two hours, at which time the tests were ended. Note that they were still swimming vigorously at the completion of the experiment! Do you know that four ounces of liver or 30 liver tablets each contain the same amount of protein - 30 grams? So, why not supplement your protein intake with desiccated liver tablets. This will aid in keeping your blood sugar level up and help to prevent fatigue 300% increase in endurance”.
The Golden Era
With Vince Gironda singing the praises for liver, it is no wonder that golden era legends such as Don Howorth and Bob Gajda, were known to take anywhere between 50-100 liver tablets per day when preparing for competition! During this classical period of bodybuilding, admittedly, it was a naïve time where if something worked for someone else, there was really no harm in trying it yourself and see what became of these self-imposed experiments. However, soon after Vince began promoting the benefits of liver, science caught up.
The Awesome Benefits of Liver
So what's so good about desiccated liver? For starters, old school bodybuilders have called liver the BODYBUILDERS SUPERFOOD! Why? Well, it's rich in amino acids, vitamins, minerals, nucleic acids, lipotropics, antioxidants, cytochrome P450 (an enzyme involved in steroid production and detoxification), and other important nutrients. Liver has been used by bodybuilders and powerlifters since the pioneering days of the Silver Era (the 1930s to 1950s) to increase their strength, enhance appetites, reduce recovery times and fatigue, boost athletic performance, to support their liver function, and detoxify the body. Vince Gironda himself once stated that liver was an effective blood builder, ie liver helps increase red blood cell count, which supports muscle growth. Plus, it's one of the best sources of heme iron, which is the bioavailable iron that our bodies need.
Desiccated liver contains heme iron, one of the most bioavailable forms around. Synthetic or elemental iron is not optimal and can lead to overdosing. Overdosing is far less likely with natural bioavailable iron. With non-heme iron (not bioavailable), you might expect an absorption rate of only 1-3%, which is why I never take it as it is a complete waste of money. With heme iron as found in liver, you could expect 35% absorption or more, and that's a lot more bang for your buck! Desiccated liver tabs can also exert "hematinic activity", which is the ability of a substance to improve the quality of the blood, including the hemoglobin level and the number of erythrocytes. That's why Vince Gironda has called liver a "blood builder".
All this is important because hemoglobin, which is carried by our red blood cells is what delivers oxygen and nutrients to your working muscles. If you got a problem with iron and blood such as anemia, it can cause fatigue, decreased energy levels, reduced physical performance, and disease of course. Anemia will put you out of the gym and worse!
Liver also contains an abundance of nucleic acids. For many years, people thought the body could make enough nucleic acids via de novo nucleotide synthetic pathways. Under certain circumstances, the body is simply unable to keep up with the demand. Therefore there are times when the body needs to supplement with more, especially when the body is undergoing rapid hypertrophy and has limited food supply, or is under metabolic stress. In other words, when you're training hard to either gain mass or shed fat, nucleic acid supplementation is very important. Under these stressful conditions, metabolic demand exceeds the capacity of de novo synthesis and nucleic acids become conditionally essential nutrients. This is another one of the many reasons that liver can have a real effect on improving recovery rates.
Liver is one of the best sources of A and B vitamins in food. For the athlete, B vitamins are among the most important of all the vitamins. B vitamins play a key role in energy production. If you are low here, your energy levels can suffer. This is bad news in the gym. B vitamins are also needed in carbohydrate metabolism, fat utilization, cell function, proper enzyme function, the regulation of blood sugar, antioxidant function, and detoxification reactions, etc.
As mentioned previously Vince Gironda served as a nutritional scientist during the golden era, and whilst experimenting with liver on himself and his clients, researched the available scientific literature at the time and eventually found the many reasons why Liver was so potent as a supplement. First and foremost, the novel research on Cytochrome P450, which is now recognized as a diverse group of catalytic enzymes, was predominantly found in liver in humans, and mainly responsible for the biotransformation of organic substances. Cytochrome P450 activity as well as both its induction and inhibition are key factors in drug biotransformation and can be involved in deactivation, activation, detoxification and toxification processes. Furthermore, they are involved in the formation (synthesis) and breakdown (metabolism) of various molecules and chemicals within cells. Cytochrome P450 enzymes play a role in the synthesis of many molecules including steroid hormones, certain fats (cholesterol and other fatty acids), and acids used to digest fats (bile acids). Additional cytochrome P450 enzymes metabolize external substances, such as medications that are ingested, and internal substances, such as toxins that are formed within cells. There are approximately 60 cytochrome P450 genes in humans.
It is this ability of P450 to aid in the biosynthesis and metabolism of steroids in particular both estrogen and testosterone as well as many of the important vitamins, and its ability to detoxify waste products and chemicals in liver that Vince attributed to the enhanced performance seen in rats and therefore Vince theorized that liver was useful for bodybuilding.
Vince of course was right. Not only does beef liver contain detoxifying and energy-boosting P450, but it also contains many other detoxifying enzymes. Interestingly, a recent study in Spain showed that endurance athletes appear to have a more optimal genetic profile in liver-metabolizing genes (including Cytochrome P450) than non-athletes, and therefore have a greater detoxification capacity. Therefore there is an implication of an “optimal” genetic profile in liver-metabolizing genes in systemic recovery from prolonged continuous efforts in this type of endurance sport, favouring sporting performance. If one, of course, does not have this “optimal” genetic profile, one could always supplement with liver, and that is exactly what Vince was trying to tell us so many years ago.
As mentioned earlier, Liver in fact is a superfood. Check out the nutritional profile as compared to other meats from this recent study where the nutritional profile of reindeer liver was recorded. It is truly impressive!
In summary, Desiccated Liver should be part of every serious bodybuilding supplement regime. Grab yourself a bottle of NSP Nutrition’s Power Grass-Fed Beef Liver sourced from Argentinian Grass-fed Beef, as formulated and recommended by Vince Gironda himself, and power through your workouts….you won't regret it!
Blueprint for the Bodybuilder: https://nspnutrition.com/collections/books-courses/products/3143
Cytochrome P450: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genefamily/cytochromep450
Cytochrome P450 induces enzymes in Human Liver Cells: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26272150/
Original rat study from Benjamin H Ershoff: https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19511403380
Study on optimal genetic profiles in athletes: https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-019-0227-7
Liver nutritional profile: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3417664/pdf/IJCH-71-17997.pdf
NSP Nutrition Desiccated Liver Capsules: https://nspnutrition.com/products/nsp-power-beef-liver-extract-500-mg