Choline on a Plant-Based Diet
Most people are familiar with micronutrients like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, etc. But not many people have heard of choline, and of those that have, few know what choline actually is or what foods we can find it in.
Many people also question if you can get enough choline on a plant-based diet. Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll feel more assured about meeting your needs!
Choline is sort of like the middle child of nutrients — it is just as important as its siblings, but it, unfortunately, gets a lot less attention. But we shouldn’t neglect choline, and those on a plant-based diet need to pay extra attention to their intake.
WHAT IS CHOLINE?
Choline is a B vitamin-like essential nutrient found in both plants and animals. It is the precursor to one of our main neurotransmitters (brain hormones) – acetylcholine (ACh), which is responsible for numerous daily bodily functions.
Neurotransmitter literally translates to ‘brain carrier’, so ACh, being a neurotransmitter, enables our brain to send signals to our body. ACh’s primary job is to control muscle movement, but it also plays a role in learning and memory.
WHY DO WE NEED CHOLINE?
Now that we know choline makes up ACh, which allows us to move, think, feel, and do everything we need to do, you might be wondering how you are still alive even though you’ve never been conscious of choline intake.
Well, research shows that genetic variability can determine whether or not an individual will experience adverse health effects from choline deficiency, or even if an individual will develop a choline deficiency.
Additionally, choline can be made in the body ‘de novo’ (anew), BUT it is not enough to meet our choline intake requirement, though it may sustain levels for a short period of time.
Therefore, we must get choline from our food to avoid developing a deficiency. Studies show that choline deficiency is linked to atherosclerosis, fatty liver disease, and neurological disorders.
Some research shows that an adequate-high choline intake may help to prevent certain diseases. In one study, women with a high choline intake had a 24% decreased risk of developing breast cancer.
Choline is also crucial for pregnant women as fetal choline deficiency can inhibit brain development and affect learning and memory.
PLANT-BASED SOURCES OF CHOLINE
Many foods contain choline, however, the richest sources are animal products, specifically eggs. Eggs contain about 150 mg of choline each.
However, choline is widespread in a plant-based diet – you just have to know where to look!
Most plant foods contain choline, but some are higher in choline than others.
5 Choline-Rich Plant Foods:
- Quinoa, cooked: 43mg/cup
- Soy milk: 58mg/cup
- Broccoli: 36mg/cup
- Beans/Tofu: 60mg/cup
- Potatoes: 15mg/potato
HOW MUCH CHOLINE DO WE NEED?
According to the Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board women aged 19 and older should consume 425 mg/per day and men 19 and older should consume 550 mg/per day. Babies need 125-200mg/day and children need 250-400mg/day, increasing with age.
The recommended intake for pregnant women is 450mg/day and 550mg/day for breastfeeding women, however, one study found that higher choline intake during pregnancy (up to 930mg/day in the third trimester) lowered the stress hormone cortisol, which may benefit children later in life.
Studies have also shown that vitamin B12 deficiency can increase the need for choline. If you eat a plant-based diet (vegan or vegetarian), it is very important to supplement vitamin B12, since the only reliable dietary source is animal products.
These recommendations are clear, though they have not been without controversy.
Jack Norris, a Registered Dietitian who runs veganhealth.org, claims that the recommended choline intakes may actually be too high, as they were based on only one not-so-thorough study. While the Adequate Intake (AI) states we need anywhere from 425mg-550mg, Norris suggests that 300mg is sufficient, and most people eating a plant-based diet consume that much already.
Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that the average plant-based adult who eats a well-balanced, varied plant-based diet likely consumes enough choline and does not need to supplement. However, I would recommend that strict plant-based pregnant women make sure to include a choline supplement in their diet. Many prenatal vitamins now contain some choline, but not all of them. Check the label to be sure.
IS TOO MUCH CHOLINE HARMFUL?
Of course, too much of a good thing is good for nothing.
One study showed that increased choline may result in elevated levels of “TMAO,” a compound created by our liver after the microbes in our gut metabolize choline.
I discuss TMAO, which is also created by the breakdown of carnitine found in meat, in my video on Meat and Inflammation.
TMAO has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and plaque build-up in the blood. However, evidence on choline and TMAO is still limited.
Choline was only recently recognized as an essential nutrient, so, unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t know.
Some research suggests choline intakes above the RDA may be beneficial for certain conditions and populations, but then again, there is the potential downfall of consuming too much.
However, when looking at the research on choline intakes in pregnant women, it seems best to err on the side of caution and consume more as opposed to not enough, since deficiency during pregnancy can be extremely harmful to the baby.
In general, though, eating a balanced, plant-based diet should provide an adequate amount of choline to support general health. While some research suggests we need more choline, I wouldn’t go downing four egg yolks a day. Yes, they have a lot of choline. But they also have a lot of cholesterol, which we know can be harmful.
If you’re wondering how you can meet the daily recommended intake for choline on a plant-based diet, check out this sample day meal plan!
Super Seed Oatmeal: 109mg
1 cup cooked oats (16mg)
1 cup soymilk (58mg)
1 banana (12mg)
1 tablespoon peanut butter (10mg)
1 tablespoon flaxseed (8mg)
1/2 cup berries (5mg)
Clementines: 10mg each
Edamame Salad: 151 mg
1 cup edamame (87mg)
1 cup broccoli (36mg)
1 cup brown rice (19mg)
1 tablespoon soy sauce (7mg)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (2mg)
Baked Sweet Potato: 15mg
Burrito Bowl: 157mg
1 cup pinto beans (60mg)
1 cup quinoa (43mg)
1 cup cooked spinach (20mg)
1/2 cup corn (18mg)
1/2 avocado (10mg)
1/2 cup tomatoes (6mg)
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