In the pantheon of vitamins and minerals, choline has tended to be overlooked.
Most people know about the antioxidant vitamins (A, C and E), the “sunshine” vitamin (D) and the “stress” or “energy” vitamins (the Bs). Calcium gets credit for bone health and folic acid is prioritized during pregnancy.
But choline is only beginning to get the respect it deserves.
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Choline loosely belongs to the family of B vitamins. Our bodies make some choline, but not enough to meet our needs, so in 1998 it became classified as an essential nutrient. (Essential nutrients are nutrients we need to get from food.)
It plays several important roles in the body, assisting with transmission of nerve impulses and cell-to-cell communication and helping our cell walls stay structurally sound. Choline also helps our bodies transport fat and cholesterol out of our livers and into the tissues that need them, which explains why choline deficiency has been linked with fatty liver disease.
Choline is especially important during pregnancy and early childhood, playing a similar role to that of folic acid or folate. It’s important for fetal brain growth and intellectual development, and may help protect against neural tube defects in early pregnancy. After birth, choline continues to be vital for normal cognitive development in the infant and young child.
Women need about 425 milligrams (mg) of choline each day, but those needs increase to 450 mg when pregnant and 550 mg when breast-feeding.
One large research study found that women who had choline intakes of around 500 mg per day had the lowest risk of having a baby with neural tube defects. Interestingly, choline and folate rely on each other for certain functions, so a deficiency in one can cause a secondary deficiency in the other.
Of course, men need choline, too — about 550 mg per day.
The best food source of choline is eggs, with one large egg containing about 125 mg. In fact, some health experts say that the now outdated advice to avoid egg yolks in order to prevent high cholesterol may have contributed to some degree of choline deficiency in this country.
Do you like liver? A 3-ounce serving of beef liver has about 350 mg of choline, with chicken liver having slightly less. (Avoid or limit liver before and during pregnancy to avoid getting too much vitamin A.) Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish, shellfish and soybeans each have about 60-110 mg choline per serving.
People who regularly eat eggs and meat tend to get enough choline in their diets, but vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat many eggs need to be more thoughtful about getting sufficient amounts. Milk and yogurt have modest amounts of choline, as do plant sources like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, soy milk, wheat germ, peanuts, many types of beans and even chocolate.
However, it’s difficult to eat enough of these foods to meet the adequate intake. Many multivitamin supplements — including prenatal supplements — contain little-to-no choline, so shop carefully and read labels if you decide to go that route.
Next time: When choosing produce, is fresh best?
Carrie Dennett: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.