In this blog I’m writing about a nutrient that’s not often talked about. But more and more, research suggests it has an important role to play in our health. Particularly during the key life stages of pregnancy and breastfeeding – choline.
What is choline and why is it important?
Choline is an “essential” nutrient, similar to omega-3 fatty acids, in that we need to get enough through our diets as our bodies don’t naturally produce enough. It’s a relatively new nutrient, having only been identified as a nutrient needed for human health in 1998.
Choline is needed for brain function. It is particularly important during key life stages including pregnancy and lactation. It also plays a role in liver function, muscle movement, nervous system and metabolism.
Given that it’s a relatively new nutrient, a lot more research is still needed to determine the exact impact of dietary intake on health throughout different life stages. However, current research does suggest an association between poor dietary choline intake during pregnancy and certain birth complications. Including neural tube defects.
Newborn babies are born with very high levels of choline. About three times the amount of the maternal level. Suggesting high needs at this stage. Levels of choline in breastmilk have been shown to be highest during the first two weeks, before staying stable until around six months.
How much do I need?
In the UK, there are currently no recommended intakes for choline. It’s considered there is not yet enough research to make a recommendation.
Guidelines in the US and more recently in Europe have established an “adequate intake” for choline. Including higher intakes suggested during pregnancy and lactation. In Europe the guidelines were set based on the average intakes seen in healthy populations
Adapted from: https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/bmjnph/2/2/86.full.pdf
Where do I get it from?
Choline is mostly found in animal products – eggs, liver and beef are particularly rich sources (note that liver is not recommended during pregnancy). Some plant sources also contain choline, although in lower amounts. The table below shows some of the best sources of choline.
What if I’m a vegetarian / vegan?
There are currently no recommendations in the UK to routinely supplement choline at any stage, including during pregnancy or breastfeeding. However, if you don’t regularly include certain foods in your diet such as eggs, meat or seafood, you may wish to consider a supplement. It’s advisable to check with a qualified healthcare professional before supplementing. Particularly if you’re considering taking multiple supplements to ensure the amounts are within safe limits and there are no interactions between nutrients.
What about choline for babies and young children?
As there are no recommendations for choline currently in the UK. It’s not possible to say exactly how much babies and children need in their diets. A balanced diet which includes a variety of the choline-rich foods listed above will help to ensure your little one is getting the right mix of nutrients, including choline.