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What Is Choline—And Why Do You Need It?

Some foods are more well-known for their star nutrients than others. We tout milk for its calcium, meats for protein, and carrots for vitamin A. But when it comes to choline, you might be left scratching your head.

Choline is one of the lesser talked about nutrients our body needs, but it’s still essential to our health. Here, experts share its functions, as well as where to find it.

What Is Choline?

At a basic level, choline is a compound that supports many of our bodily processes, and is needed for metabolism, explains Kari Pitts, R.D., L.D.N., a registered dietitian for Preg Appetit. (Metabolism is the process in which the body breaks down nutrients and utilizes foods’ calories throughout the day.)

“Choline plays an essential role in optimal human health from preconception and throughout all of the life cycles,” Pitts says.

That said, it’s perhaps most famous for its role in fetal development. “Choline supports the brain development of the fetus and reduces the risk of neural tube defects and cleft lip when the baby is born,” she explains.

How Much Choline Do You Need?

A healthy body is capable of making some choline in the liver, but that amount is not ample for human needs, according to Pitts. Thus, most of it must be obtained through food.

“Choline values differ among different groups of people but there are recommended intakes developed by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) of the Institute of Medicine (IOM),” says dietitian Courtney Darsa, M.S., R.D. Generally, she recommends adult men and women 19 years or older aim for 550 and 425 milligrams of the nutrient per day, respectively.

Choline is especially important for pregnant and lactating women, who need 450 milligrams and 550 milligrams per day, respectively, according to the National Institute of Health. This is because the mother’s nutrient reserves are directly transported to the baby.

Sadly, approximately 95 percent of pregnant women who participated in a 2014 Public Health Nutrition study reported consuming less choline than recommended. (Many prenatal vitamins only contain up to 55 milligrams, so it’s recommended to consume choline-rich foods during pregnancy, the authors wrote.)

Read More: 10 Ways Women Can Support Their Fertility Naturally

Other groups of people at risk for choline deficiency include endurance athletes and those who have high alcohol consumption.

“Endurance athletes who exercise for two or more hours on a regular basis may lose choline during vigorous training,” says Pitts. “And people with high alcohol consumption are also at risk because large quantities of alcohol may also increase choline metabolism.” (High alcohol consumption is defined as more than one alcoholic beverage per day, or eight drinks per week, for women and more than two alcoholic beverages per day, or 15 drinks per week, for men.)

But really, anyone can experience adverse affects if they fall short on choline. One study published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition found that, when deprived of the nutrient, the majority of men and postmenopausal women developed a fatty liver or muscle damage.

4 Major Functions of Choline

To recap: Choline supports a variety of bodily functions for growth. Here are four ways meeting your needs can benefit your health.

1. It supports Brain Health

“Choline is needed to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain key for memory, mood, intelligence, and early brain development,” says Darsa. It also promotes muscle activation and a healthy nervous system.

In fact, the depletion of acetylcholine is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, likely because of its ties to brain function, according to a 2016 Current Neuropharmacology study.

Read More: 5 Supplements That Feed Your Brain

2. It Metabolizes Fats

Since choline plays a crucial role in metabolizing fats, lacking sufficient amounts can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can result in cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer, according to the National Institute of Health.

3. It Assists With Cell Membrane Signaling

“Substantial choline intake is important for cell membrane signaling,” explains Darsa. By supporting cell membranes and producing compounds that act as cell messengers, the nutrient essentially helps cells communicate.

4. It Helps With DNA Synthesis

Choline aids in DNA synthesis, the process through which cells divide and replicate to create DNA. This process is not only important for growth but for our ability to repair damaged tissue from an injury, Pitts explains.

Where Can You Find Choline?

Choline can be found in a variety of foods, though animal products typically contain more than plant-based options. “Good sources of choline include beef, eggs, chicken, potatoes, fish, and both kidney and soybeans,” says Darsa.

Three ounces of beef liver provide 65 percent of your daily needs, while one large egg provides 27 percent, half-a-cup of soybeans provides 19 percent, and three ounces of chicken breast offer 13 percent, according to the National Institute of Health.

Luckily, choline from all food sources is processed and utilized the same way, meaning plant-based eaters don’t have to worry about decreased absorption, says Pitts.

Alternatively, choline can also be taken as a supplement. Just be sure to chat with your doctor before adding it to your regimen.

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