Vegan choline deficiency has been a hot topic lately, so you may be wondering what is choline and what are the benefits of choline?
Choline is not a vitamin or a mineral, but rather a different type of essential nutrient that is similar to B-vitamins and is critical to our body's health.
Choline plays several critical roles in our body's to keep us healthy:
(1) Choline keeps our cell membranes healthy. Our body needs choline to create two vital phospholipids with big names – Phosphatidylcholine and Sphingomyelin – which make up our cell membranes. We want strong cell membranes so that our cells are resistant to damage, and so that individual cells perform their functions more effectively.
(2) Choline supports healthy brain development, cognitive function, and memory.
(3) Choline supports heart health by helping you make a neurotransmitter involved in heartbeat regulation.
(4) Choline supports liver function by helping to remove cholesterol from the liver.
(5) Choline supports the movement of muscles.
It is also one of the important nutrients needed during pregnancy for developing fetuses.
Adequate choline intake may especially support cognitive benefits, sharper memories and information processing speed. If your vegan diet has you feeling like you constantly have brain fog, low choline levels may be to blame.
Why are vegans concerned about choline?
Choline is produced by the liver naturally but the amount produced is not enough to meet the body's needs. Like most nutrients, your diet is the key to getting adequate amounts of choline. The problem for vegans is most dietary sources of choline are from animal products, like red meat, poultry, fish, dairy foods, and eggs. For this reason, vegans typically have lower than adequate choline levels. Only 11% of adults in the U.S. have an adequate intake of choline. Vegans and vegetarians get even less.
How much choline should you get each day?
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the adequate dose of choline per day is 550 mg of choline for men and 425 mg of choline for women. These choline recommendations can be obtained from our diet and supplements.
Vegan choline deficiency, insufficiency, and potential consequences
Choline deficiency is rare because the body can make choline naturally. These rare choline deficiency cases can lead to muscle and liver damage, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Most people in the United States consume less than the adequate recommended intake of choline, which means they are insufficient as opposed to deficient. But even low choline levels that don't reach deficiency could lead to negative health consequences like a lower quality of brain function, which presents with symptoms including brain fog, poor recall, and poor processing speed.
In response to recent media reports about vegan diets being choline-deficient, The Vegan Society released a statement saying these reports are sensationalized and " misrepresented the evidence base and suggested that vegan nutrition is unhealthy due to a lack of choline, particularly for children - this is NOT true."
The Vegan Society is correct that eating plant-based foods high in choline can result in adequate levels, but it may not be as easy as people think.
Eat plant-based foods high in choline
Although animal products like eggs, fish, chicken, beef liver, and scallops contain the highest concentrations of choline, vegans can get some choline from their diets if they select plant-based foods with choline content. However, most vegan sources of choline are quite low. The chart below summarizes the best dietary vegan sources of choline and highlights one of the star vegan choline-rich foods – wheat germ.
Nuts, such as almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, flax seeds, pistachios are high in choline content. Edamame is also a great source of vegan choline. Legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, and pinto beans are also great sources of vegan choline.
Should you take a vegan choline supplement?
Since plant-based diet sources of choline are typically very low in choline, it makes it difficult to achieve an adequate intake through diet alone. Vegetarian sources of choline are easily obtained from milk and eggs, but choline supplements for vegans is an effective way to ensure adequate intake, especially if you don't like the plant-based choline sources listed above. For these reasons, I recommend to my vegan patients that they take a choline supplement.
When it comes to supplements, there are several forms of choline, such as choline citrate, L-Alpha GPC choline, and choline alfoscerate, but the most common form in supplements is choline bitartrate.
Finding the best choline supplement
When looking for the best choline supplement, don't just look for choline by itself. The best option is to find a vegan supplement that includes it with other nutrients vegans need in their diet.
In addition to choline, vegans are often low or deficient in several other essential micronutrients, including vitamin B12, omega fatty acids (DHA, EPA), iron, zinc, and specific amino acids (L-carnitine, L-carnosine, L-creatine, L-lysine.) Vegans should consider a highly absorbable supplement with vegan forms of these nutrients, like Vegan Essentials by Healthycell, to live a vegan life in the healthiest possible way.
To your health,
Dr. Vincent Giampapa, MD, FACS
Visiting Scholar, The Sinclair Lab
Harvard University, Boston, MA
Cell Aging Researcher & Author
Director, Cell Health Institute