7 Things Nutrition Experts Wish You Knew About Choline

Choline may not get the same buzz as nutrients like Vitamin D or iron, but the science is pretty clear about its VIP function in the body, and why we should be stocking up.

Choline, a water-soluble nutrient, is the new kid on the block, earning a spot on the National Academy of Science's list of required nutrients as recently as 1998. Choline is like a cousin to the B vitamins, including folic acid and riboflavin, because it helps build cell membranes and transports nutrients in and out of cells. 'Choline is a methyl donor, meaning it's required to be involved in various physiological processes including metabolism, lipid transport, methylation, and neurotransmitter synthesis,' says Kristin Hantzos, MPH, clinical nutrition director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox.

What does choline do for us?

Even though choline wasn't recognized for a long time, it plays a significant supporting role in your body. It assists in brain development, muscle growth, and movement, nervous system function, and proper metabolism of dietary fat and cholesterol. Choline supports liver function by enabling liver pathways and our body's detoxification system. 'The body needs a supply of large, soluble molecules that can be attached to toxins, creating a soluble substance which can then be effectively excreted through the urine, bile, or stool,' says Hantzos.

Choline, the communicator of cells

Choline likes to keep an eye on other cell membranes in your body, by helping to maintain the integrity of the cells, so they can function properly. 'Choline assists in the communication between cells in multiple ways,' says Kevin Pietro, MS, RD, clinical assistant professor of nutrition at the University of New Hampshire. 'For this reason, recent choline research has focused on cognition and certain neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.' For example, promising findings have shown improvements in cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions when therapeutic doses of citicolin (a choline derivative) treatment were given to men who suffered a stroke. After six months of receiving citicoline, their attention-executive functions and temporal orientation improved, and more improvements showed up at 12 months.

How much choline do we need?

The body does make a small amount of choline in the liver, but we need to glean more choline from food. The truth is that we don't know exactly how much more, according to Pietro, because the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine doesn't have enough information yet to establish a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Until then, they've issued an Adequate Intake (AI) value for choline. 'The average consumer should try to consume an amount above the AI,' Pietro says. 'That's 550 milligrams per day for males 14 and older, and 425 milligrams per day for non-pregnant females 19 and older.' Pregnant women should aim for 450 milligrams per day, and breastfeeding moms need more like 550 milligrams per day.

How do we get choline?

Luckily, we can get choline (in the form of lecithin), eating foods we already love. 'Key sources of choline include egg yolks, shrimp, scallops, beef, peanuts, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and oats,' says Hantzos. Animals sources generally have the highest concentrations of choline, so if you're vegan, make sure to eat plenty of cruciferious veggies such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale. You'll not only get your choline but cancer-fighting benefits to boot. To get more choline in your diet, reach for these foods: beef liver, 3 ounces, 356 mg., wheat germ (toasted), 1 cup, 202 mg., chickpeas (uncooked) 1 cup, 198 mg., egg (large), 147 mg., beef, 3 ounces, 97 mg., chicken breast, 3 ounces, 73 mg., salmon, (pink-canned), 3 ounces, 75 mg., Brussels sprouts, 1 cup, 63 mg., broccoli, 1 cup, 63 mg., skim milk, 8 ounces, 38 mg., peanut butter (smooth), 2 tablespoons, 20 mg. To find choline contents in a specific food, search the USDA food composition website.

Choline for pregnancy

Folic acid, calcium, and iron are nutrients pregnant women hear a lot about at their prenatal appointments. These nutrients are significant for baby's growth, development, and preventing neural tube defects, which include anencephaly and spina bifida. Recent research tells us choline may be deserve more attention, however. 'Pregnant women are also encouraged to take a prenatal vitamin supplement that contains choline to prevent neural tube defects, and it is also added to infant formulas for babies,' says Gisela Bouvier, RDN, owner of B Nutrition and Wellness, LLC. Research suggests adequate amounts of choline is necessary when the brain is growing and developing, for intelligence, memory, and maybe even mood regulation.

What happens if we don't get enough choline?

Choline deficiency can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, according to a 2014 study published in Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 'This buildup of fat in the liver could become progressively worse, potentially leading to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which indicates significant inflammation and liver cell damage,' says Pietro. 'This also increases one's risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer.