The Benefits Choline and How to Get It

egg yolk in a cracked shell resting on whole eggs
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Choline—the word may be vaguely familiar, but you probably don't know much about this nutrient, which shows signs of being quite important to our early development, and all through our lives in our brains, livers, and perhaps much more.

What Is Choline?

Choline is a chemical similar to the B-vitamins and is often lumped in with them, although it is not (yet) an "official" B-vitamin.

Although its entire mechanism of action, particularly how it interacts with other nutrients, is not completely understood, it seems to often work in concert with folate and an amino acid called methionine. Although the human body can make some choline it is generally recognized that it is important to get dietary choline as well.

Benefits

Choline serves various functions in our bodies—in the structure of cell membranes, protecting our livers from accumulating fat, as the precursor molecule for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and more. Because of rapid development in fetuses and infants, we have a great need for choline in our early lives. Human milk has high levels of choline.

Choline started to get the interest of nutrition researchers when it was found that fetal rats whose mothers didn't get enough choline in their diets had less brain development and poorer memories after birth than those whose mothers ate adequate amounts of the nutrient.

Over the past few years, there has been a rush of research, and there are now hints that choline may be essential not only for the brain development of fetuses and infants but may help prevent memory loss associated with aging (although attempts to reverse cognitive decline once it happens have been disappointing).

Choline has been shown to protect the liver from certain types of damage and can help reverse the damage that has already occurred. Additionally, it may help lower cholesterol and homocysteine levels associated with cardiovascular disease, and may also help protect against some types of cancers. This is an area where more research is needed, but there are some positive first signs.​

Daily Needs

An RDA for choline has not been established, but the National Academy of Sciences recommends the following for "adequate intake" of choline.

Recommended Choline Intakes (AI=Adequate Intake)

Age Daily AI
Infants0-6 mos125 mg.
 7-12 mos150 mg
Children1-3 yrs200 mg
 4-8 yrs250 mg
Boys9-13 yrs375 mg
 14-18 yrs550 mg
Girls9-13 yrs375 mg
 14-18 yrs440 mg
Men 550 mg
Women 425 mg
 Pregnant450 mg
 Lactating550 mg

Sources

Until 2004, when the USDA first published a database of choline in foods, we only had scattered studies to go on. This more systematic study has revealed some surprises, notably that there is less choline in many foods than previously thought. Although most foods have at least a little choline, some people may have to pay more close attention to get enough in their diets, particularly if they do not eat many egg yolks.

Here are some examples of foods that are particularly high in choline:

  • Beef liver - pan-fried - 100 grams (about 3.5 oz) - 418 mg
  • Yolk from one whole large egg - 112 mg choline
  • Beef (ground) 80% lean/20% fat - 3.5 oz patty - 81 mg
  • Cauliflower - 3/4 C cooked (1" pieces) - 62 mg
  • Navy beans - 1/2 C cooked - 48 mg
  • Tofu - 100 grams (about 3.5 oz) - 28 mg
  • Almonds - sliced - 1/2 cup - 26 mg
  • Peanut butter - 2 T - 20 mg

For me, one of the important messages of choline (and other recently-discovered nutrients) is that we are still learning so much about nutrition. This emphasizes the importance of eating a variety of whole foods, so we will be less likely to miss out on some yet-to-be-discovered nutrients.

Is it Possible to Get Too Much Choline?

Actually, yes. The Tolerable Upper Intake level for adults has been set at 3.5 grams (3500 mg) per day. Above this, adverse effects can include low blood pressure, diarrhea, and fishy body odor.

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