Health & Wellness

Choline for the Young and Not So Young

Bridget Swinney, MS RD
By Bridget Swinney, MS RD

You may be trying to get your vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3s, but what about choline? Read on to find out why you need this nutrient you may have never heard of!

What is Choline, Anyway?

It’s a B vitamin, the precursor to two phospholipids (acetylcholine and phosphatidilycholine) that form the foundation of ALL cell membranes. Yes– pretty important! Acetylcholine, is a neurotransmitter that helps your brain send messages. An Adequate Intake was established just 10 years ago by the National Academy of Science. Choline is not something usually checked in a random blood test. That’s because the level barely budges below 50% of normal, even when a person hasn’t had ANY choline for a week. It’s thought that’s because the body breaks down cell membranes to grab the choline it needs. Ouch!

In a nutshell, it’s important for:

Good Memory—for Both Young and Old.

During pregnancy, choline helps with the formation of the memory center of the brain. Along with its partner folate, it’s also been shown to help prevent neural tube defects. Just as important, adequate choline during pregnancy seems to enhance cognitive performance both in childhood and adulthood.

As we age, the acetylcholine is what keeps those thoughts moving and keeps us from wandering into a room and forgetting why we went there. In the Framingham Offspring population, those with higher choline intake scored better on tests of verbal and visual memory tasks. Their choline intake was also inversely related to white-matter hyperintensity, which is associated with impaired cognitive performance and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Now, Where Can You Get It?

If you’re one of those people who throws her egg yolks down the drain to be “uber” healthy, just stop. That’s one of the best sources of choline you can find. Two whole large eggs get you almost half of the DRI for choline, while 3 ounces of beef liver gets you about 65% of the DRI. Vegan? You can also get choline from veggies. A cup of roasted soybeans will yield about 40% of the DRI of this important B vitamin.

Are You Getting Enough?

Probably not. The latest NHANES Survey (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2014) showed that only 8% of adults and 8.5% of pregnant women were getting enough. Older Americans eat even less choline—only 4% of men and 2% of women over 71 years got enough choline. Those who ate eggs had about twice as much choline in their diet as those who didn’t. Those who ate animal protein such as meat, fish and poultry had about 100 mg more choline in their diets than those who didn’t.

How Much Do You Need?

Men need 550 mg and Women need 425 mg, unless they’re pregnant or nursing and then that number goes up to 450 and 550 mg. Premenopausal women can make some choline on their own because estrogen switches on the gene that helps the body make it. But men and postmenopausal women don’t have enough estrogen, so they definitely need to get it from food.

The bottom line: it’s difficult to get enough choline unless you eat eggs regularly or take a supplement. If you’re worried about cholesterol in eggs, don’t. A study of healthy young people found that eating 3 eggs a day increased choline in the blood stream and also increased HDL levels. (That’s the good cholesterol.)

Most prenatal supplements and general multivitamins don’t contain this important nutrient You have to do your due diligence to find one that does–or take an individual supplement.

What If You Don’t Get Enough?

A choline deficiency can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and during pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects and suboptimal brain development in the fetus and infant. Here is where to find choline.

Source: National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements

 

Resources:

Usual choline intake in the US: Nutrients 2017.

Neuroprotective Actions of Dietary Choline

Neuroprotective actions of perinatal choline nutrition

More Pregnancy Nutrition:

Are You Getting Enough Calcium While Pregnant?

8 Great Almond Recipes–Plus Why You should Eat Them if You’re Pregnant

 

 

Bridget Swinney, MS RD
Bridget Swinney is a health communicator, award-winning author and well-regarded nutrition expert specializing in teaching people to embrace a healthier diet and lifestyle. In her 25 years as a registered dietitian, she has worked in public health, as a clinical...Read More
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