Ever heard of choline? Most likely you’ve seen the item listed on the nutrient label of packaged food. Most likely, that’s probably all you know about it. That’s not a surprise as this is actually a relatively new nutrient to be added to the dietary recommendations for a well-balanced, healthy diet!
Choline is not a vitamin and it’s not a mineral. In fact, it’s simply labeled as a water-soluble compound. With that said, choline is present in many plant-based foods due to the fact that it plays an essential role in the structure of plants. Yet, choline is also important for human health, playing an important role in lipid transportation and the metabolic process, memory, mood, and muscle control, and even the development of the brain. Even though choline is incredibly important for human development and overall health, it turns out many Americans simply don’t get enough of it.
Let’s take a deep dive into choline and where you can find your favorite source in the plant-based kingdom!
What is Choline?
Choline is a required nutrient “for normal bodily function and human health” and while your “liver can make small amounts,” the majority of your diety intake of choline must come from your diet. It’s important to note that choline is not a vitamin or a mineral, but an “organic, water-soluble compound” that is often “grouped with the vitamin B complex due to its similarities.”
In 1998, the Institute of Medicine recognized choline as an essential nutrient discovering that adequate intake of this compound impacts “liver function, healthy brain development, muscle movement, your nervous system and metabolism.” If these are important enough, choline is also integral in creating fats to “support the structural integrity of cell membranes,” producing “compounds that act as cell messengers,” making substances that remove cholesterol from the liver, and synthesizes DNA. Choline is also important to create “acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter [that’s] involved in memory, muscle movement, regulating heartbeat and other basic functions.”
Too Much or Too Little
As choline is a somewhat new nutrient, researchers are still unraveling the side effects that can take place from getting too much or too little. Plus, since the body naturally creates small amounts of choline and most plant-based foods offer doses of choline, a true deficiency is a bit hard to come by.
What does choline deficiency look like?
Currently, choline deficiency has been linked to “muscle damage, liver damage, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD or hepatosteatosis).” Dietary choline intake — specifically a deficiency — has also been found to possibly affect the risk of cardiovascular and peripheral artery disease, increase the risk of neurological disorders — such as Alzheimer’s — and, as previously mentioned, increases the risk of development nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — which is a “condition in which excess fat is stored in your liver.”
With that said, due to the fact that the standard American diet relies on primarily processed and packaged foods, as well as lower amounts of vegetable intake, it’s been found that Americans may actually be more at risk for a choline deficiency. The groups most at risk include pregnant women, — which may lead to an “increased risk of neural tube defects” — those with specific genetic alterations, — DNA sequences called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) affect “demands for dietary choline” — and certain “patients requiring total parenteral nutrition” — may lead to low plasma choline concentrations.
On the other hand, it’s important not to overdo your choline intake as well.
Excessive intake of dietary choline — generally from supplements — leads to a variety of unwanted symptoms including “a fishy body odor, vomiting, excessive sweating and salivation, hypotension, and liver toxicity.” Plus, consuming too much choline has also been linked to the “production of TMAO, a substance that has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Recommended Intake of Choline
Too much or too little intake of dietary choline can lead to severe symptoms, diseases, and conditions, so what’s the right amount?
Luckily the National Institutes of Health have outlined adequate intakes (AI) guidelines for choline based upon age and gender. Female adults over the age of 19 are recommended to consume 425 milligrams per day, while males over the age of 19 are recommended to consume 550 milligrams per day. The dosage drastically changes as you get older. For instance, a male or female between the ages of 9 and 13 are recommended only 375 milligrams per day, while an infant between 7 and 12 months should only be consuming around 150 milligrams per day.
Health Benefits of Choline
One of my favorite parts of learning about a new nutrient is discovering what health benefits it can unlock. When it comes to plant-based sources of most nutrients, health benefits are generally plentiful. Why is this? Generally, when you consume plant-based compounds — such as choline — they are also wrapped up in a neat package with a variety of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and important components that help break them down such as fiber.
Good for Heart Health
If too little or too much choline can damage heart health, then the appropriate amount can keep your heart healthy! In particular, “choline and folate assist in the conversion of homocysteine, which prevents the body from accumulating too much fat and may be beneficial in cutting down on the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.” High levels of homocysteine — an amino acid found primarily in animal-based protein — has been “correlated with [the] development of heart and blood vessel diseases.”
Boost the Central Nervous System
Your central nervous system is one of the most important for a healthy and balanced body. The central nervous system is made up of the “brain and spinal cord,” and yet it “combines information from the entire body and coordinates activity across the whole organism.”
Choline is incredibly vital for a healthy central nervous system due to the fact that it is “used by the body in a variety of ways that are crucial for nerve functioning, including aiding in nerve signaling and maintaining the membranes of brain cells.” Research deduces that choline may “improve signaling capacity of nerves, support their structural integrity, and protect vital neuronal membranes.” On top of that, choline is integral for the creation and function of acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter necessary for “healthy nerve and muscle function” — which is specifically engineered to aid in memory and learning. Without enough choline, this neurotransmitter is negatively affected manifesting as “poor concentration, poor memory, mood changes, and other cognitive impairments, especially as someone ages.”
Good for Your Liver
As is similar to heart health, too much or too little intake of choline has been linked to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Therefore, adequate intake of choline leads to a healthy liver! Choline is required to “properly transport fat from the liver to cells throughout the body,” and therefore choline acts as a fat-cleanser for the liver. This is why a choline deficiency can lead to fatty buildup in the liver and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Choline also plays an important role in “transporting both cholesterol and triglycerides, two forms of important fats, from the liver to other parts of the body where they are needed.”
Prevents Loss of Brain Function
Ever wonder why we start to lose our keys more often as we age or why some of us suffer from dementia? While there are many reasons behind these age-related symptoms, one of them is the loss of brain elasticity. Research has discovered that choline plays an important role in “maintaining brain elasticity by working to maintain levels of acetylcholine, which naturally declines into old age.” Plus, due to the fact that choline is a “component of cell membranes and neurotransmitters that are used in nerve signaling,” this vital nutrient is also linked to the preservation of “memory and preventing dementia, memory loss, and other signs of cognitive decline.”
Plant-Based Sources of Choline
Looking to get your daily dose choline? Start adding in those plants! Since choline is a vital component of plants in their natural state, by incorporating plant-based foods into your diet you’ll also be incorporating natural sources of choline. With that said, not all plant-based foods are created equal when it comes to choline content. Here are a few excellent sources to get you started!
Chickpeas are one of the most versatile and satiating plant-based foods that every vegan should at least try once. They are a wonderful source of protein, plus they happen to be rich in choline with one cup providing 198 milligrams. Chickpeas can be eaten in their natural form as any other legume, smashed up to make plant-based burgers — such as this Hummus Chickpea Burger recipe — ground into a flour for baking — such as this Chickpea Peanut Butter Blondies recipe or this Chickpea Pancakes With Blackberry Sauce and Lemon Yogurt Cream — or processed down to make spreads and hummus — such as this Tuscan Style Chickpea Spread.
Peas are having a moment. These little tasty morsels, traditionally known for their sweet additions to many traditional American recipes and holiday meals, happen to be one of the best sources of plant-based protein. This is especially good news for all those plant-based eaters out there! It also turns out that peas, especially split peas, are a great source of choline with one uncooked cup offering 188 milligrams. While there are a variety of ways to enjoy split peas, going traditional in this case is one of the best ways to get your bang for your buck such as in this Split Pea Soup, this Slow Cooker Split Pea Soup, or this Savory Split Pea Soup.
Not a chickpea or split pea fan? Still want to get that daily dose of choline? Try navy beans! These savory beans offer 181 milligrams in each cup. Plus, navy beans are great for hearty soups — such as this Navy Bean Soup with Crispy Kale — as the centerpiece of your plate — such as in this Petite Navy Beans with Rosemary and Diced Tomato — or to supplement for flour — such as in this Calcium-Packed Navy Bean Biscuits and Roasted Garlic Gravy.
Cruciferous vegetables — such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower — are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on a plant-based diet. Plus, they contain a component called glucosinolate, which has recently been shown to fight cancer, among many other benefits. Out of the cruciferous kingdom, if you’re seeking more choline, try cauliflower which offers a modest amount of 47 milligrams per cup.
Cauliflower has also taken the spotlight for the last few years due to its versatility such as gluten-free rice cauliflower, pizza crust, and offering as a super healthy meat substitute. Try infusing your cauliflower with flavors such as in these Thai Peanut Cauliflower Wings or this Spicy Lime Cauliflower Steaks. Use cauliflower as a base, such as in this Cauliflower Pizza Crust, or give it the center stage, such as in this Cauliflower Alfredo Pasta.
Another cruciferous veggie makes the list! While Brussels sprouts truly get a negative rap most of the time, these little nuggets of nutrients can be incredibly delicious. Plus, if you’re looking to up your intake choline by a bit, this veggie offers about 17 milligrams per cup. They are perfecting for getting a slight dose of choline without overdoing it! How can you make these bitter cruciferous veggies tasty? Infuse them with healthy fat and flavor such as in this Maple Dijon Thyme Roasted Vegetables, this Toasty Brussels Sprouts Quesadilla for One, this Sunflower Seeds and Brussels Sprouts Pesto, or this Maple and Mustard Brussels Sprouts Topped Flatbread.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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