In 1998, The Institute of Medicine – the public health arm of the National Academy of Sciences – acknowledged choline as an essential nutrient needed by humans, and critical for fetal and proper child development. They set a recommended Adequate Intake (AI) level of 425 milligrams per day for women and 550 mg. per day for men. Unfortunately, choline is one of today’s most under-publicized and overlooked nutrients.
Many in the nutritional community want to see choline recognized as a nutrient of concern so that efforts can be made to bridge the gap between actual and recommended intakes. Although choline can be produced within the body, the amount is not adequate to meet human needs over the life cycle. Therefore, choline must be obtained through the diet.
One reason for the current deficiency is that consumption of foods providing the richest sources of choline – including liver, eggs and various meats—has decreased in recent years. According to data from the US Dept. of Agriculture nutrient database, beef liver and chicken liver are the most concentrated sources of choline, delivering 350 and 330 mg., respectively, per 100 g. serving. Eggs are the next noteworthy source with 230 mg. Beef, chicken and other meats vary by cut and breed. Most deliver more than 110 mg. per the typical 4-oz. serving, rendering them an “excellent source of choline.” Foods containing at least 55 mg. of choline per serving would be a “good source of choline.”
Here are five of choline’s important health benefits:
1. Choline is an essential nutrient for fetal development. Unfortunately, pregnant women often consume inadequate amounts, and many multi-vitamins and prenatal supplements do not contain choline. The Nurses’ Health Study, reported in 2010, found that 95 percent of pregnant women consumed less than 411 mg. of choline per day, below the recommended 450 mg. In fact, the average consumption was 337 mg. per day. Pregnant women whose choline consumption levels are at the lower end of the 300 to 550 mg. range also face a deficiency that increases the risk of neural tube birth defects affecting the brain, spine and spinal canal.
2. Choline is critical to cognitive functions throughout life. It is clearly linked to fetal and infant brain development and enhanced memory and cognition. Choline may support the brain during aging and helps prevent changes in brain chemistry that result in cognitive decline and failure.
3. Choline promotes heart health. The number-one cause of death in the US is heart disease. Choline helps prevent blood plaque formation, which in turn, prevents clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Choline is also instrumental in supporting the nerve impulse systems that ensure a regular heartbeat and a strong heart muscle.
4. Choline promotes liver health. According to the American Liver Foundation, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) may affect up to 25 percent of the U.S. population, including six million children, and the incidence is on the rise. The incidence of NAFLD has more than doubled in the past 20 years. As the body’s second largest organ – second only to the skin – the liver performs more than 500 critical body functions. Choline supports normal liver function and helps prevent NAFLD. A healthy liver helps fight infection, provides detoxification by removing harmful substances from the blood, and helps process the food and drinks we consume to store energy, vitamins and minerals for future use.
5. Choline helps optimize sports performance. It benefits athletes in several ways, including enhancing muscle performance during exercise, improving stamina, supporting communication with muscle fibers and promoting muscle recovery following repetitive motion. However, when athletes are deficient in choline – and when sources of choline are exhausted in the body – the body takes choline away from other key systems and organs.