Choline – What does it do and why do we need it?

Choline, one of those lesser known nutrients that is potentially overlooked. It performs lots of roles in the body with extra importance in pregnancy.

  • It is used to make up the lining of cells.
  • It is used to make acetylcholine, which acts as a messenger, affecting mood and memory, focus, motivation and arousal.
  • Choline is important in pregnancy, it helps to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and can affect brain function.
  • Choline also helps to clear the amino acid homocysteine from the blood, which if left to accumulate, can affect the heart.  

Humans can produce some choline in the liver, but we can’t make enough to meet all the needs for all the different jobs choline has. This means we need choline in our diet, it is an essential nutrient. In addition, if your diet is low in folate, you’ll need extra choline in your diet: choline has to step up and compensate for folate’s job (of providing methyl groups to DNA for example to switch genes on and off).

Where can I get it?

Animal foods contain more protein per 100g than plant foods and so there is concern with the trend in eating less animal products. Knowing good choline sources may help with this as low levels have been found in dietary surverys. Foods rich in choline include: meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs. Plant-based sources include nuts, seeds, wholegrains, and veggies like broccoli, cabbage, kale. Choline is also found in lecithin which is a common additive in many foods. 

How much do I need?

Adults need 400mg/day. If pregnant or breastfeeding, this rises to 480 or 520mg/day respectively. Pre-menopausal women tend to need less because their oestrogen levels help increase how much choline you make yourself in the liver. 

How can I get that much in my diet?

To get enough choline, 1 egg contains approximately a third of your daily requirements, so 2 poached eggs for breakfast, a tuna sandwich with a yoghurt for lunch and then chilli con carne for dinner, you’d easily be getting enough choline. If you avoid animal products, you will have to eat more to reach requirements. Potatoes, mushrooms, kidney beans, quinoa, brussel sprouts, broccoli, peanuts, cauliflower and peas should be your go-to’s for plant based choline. 

What happens if I don’t get enough choline in my diet?

If you don’t consume enough choline, it has been shown to be linked to liver disease, and neurological disorders. Most pregnant women don’t consume enough choline, yet many pre-pregnancy and pregnancy vitamin supplements don’t contain it either. As mentioned previously, it’s really important to check your supplement label and try to include more choline-rich foods in your diet, as deficiency could lead to poor cognitive function in your baby and neural tube defects.

Huge thanks to Naomi Leppitt for helping with this article.

References and reading:

https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/132/8/2333S/4687556
https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/early/2019/07/16/bmjnph-2019-000037
https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/
https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/early/2019/07/16/bmjnph-2019-000037
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