Choosing the healthiest foods to make sure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals throughout the day can be tricky — and yet there’s always new essential nutrients we need to look out for. Case in point: Choline, first recognized as a must-have dietary nutrient by the Institute of Medicine in 1998, which is neither a vitamin or mineral. The body naturally produces choline inside of the liver, but most of the recommended daily intake comes from your diet. And yet a recent 2015 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests that 90% of Americans aren’t meeting their recommended daily intake of choline.

“Choline plays a role in neurotransmitter function, methylation pathways, cell membrane signaling, lipid transport, and early brain development,” says Michelle Hoeing Bauche, MS, RDN, a clinical dietitian in the bariatric services division of the University of Missouri Health Care system. Bauche explains that the nutrient is often tied to better cognitive function and memory retention as we age, among other holistic benefits, and is often crucial for pregnant women in particular. But if you’re vegetarian or vegan, coming by choline may be harder as it’s found in meat, poultry, fish, and other products derived from animals in higher amounts. Focusing on upping your choline intakes could be crucial — especially as intakes are already shown to be quite low among the general function.

Below, we’re outlining when you may be at risk for a deficiency in choline — and breaking down all the reasons why you’d want to maximize your diet with more choline-rich foods in the first place.

What are the health benefits of choline?

Bauche says this nutrient has been shown to aid many areas of your holistic health: Meeting your daily recommended intake could help stave off cardiovascular disease, and optimize your digestive system as to lower fatty liver disease risk. One 2019 study even shows that upping how much choline you consume in your diet may have a role in lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other early brain dysfunctions as we age. That connection may be explained by choline’s role in lowering levels of homocysteine, which is an inflammatory agent that slowly impedes brain development in older adults. “The results are still mixed on this. Some studies suggest, when adding choline alone, that it has little effect on preventing these conditions, likely because most nutrients act synergistically with one another and rarely alone,” Bauche says.

Other promising research suggests that choline may also help prevent liver disease. This 2014 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that non-obese women with higher choline counts enjoyed a 28% lower risk of liver disease compared to those who did not. Mixed research suggests that increased choline intake may even go as far as to regulate the risk of liver cancer, as well as breast cancer in women as highlighted in this 2009 study.

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That being said, according to the National Institute of Health, too much choline can cause “a fishy body odor, vomiting, heavy sweating, low blood pressure, and liver damage.” So it’s important that you’re checking with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

Which foods are high in choline?

The best source of choline, based on sheer amount alone, is actually beef liver, Bauche says, because choline is stored in an animal’s liver. While protein often contains the highest counts of choline, vegetarians can easily source their choline by partaking in a hearty breakfast. “Eggs are definitely one of the richest sources of choline in an omnivorous diet,” she explains, adding that one egg contains about 150mg of choline (a third of your daily suggested intake). Lean proteins, including salmon, all have higher choline counts than the options listed around, as long as you’re consuming at least three ounces in any given meal.

If you’re looking for other options (including vegan-friendly ingredients), consume meals containing these ingredients:

  • Dairy: Cheese and whole milk products, which can contain up to 40mg of choline.
  • Red Potatoes: A single large potato (skin and all!) contains 57mg of choline.
  • Mushrooms: Varieties like fresh shiitake may contain up to 10% of your day’s worth of choline in just one cup.
  • Beans and Legumes: Snowpeas and other legumes can contain up to 17mg of choline in 100g, meaning sprinkling these hearty staples into meals can help you sneak even more of the nutrient into your day.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Half a cup of blanched broccoli, for example, contains 31mg of choline. Cauliflower has similar, albeit lower, counts.

    For more foods high in choline, visit the National Institutes of Health.

    Am I getting enough choline?

    “Generally, people that consume moderate amounts of animal foods — around three-ounce servings of meats — regularly can assume they’ll get pretty close to their choline needs on a daily basis,” Bauche says. Since scientists have yet to establish recommended intakes, however, there are only adequate consumptions set forth by the National Institutes of Health. For women, that’s about 450mg (a fraction less than males), but that recommendation vastly changes based on individual factors.

    Certain genetic alterations are considered here, and if you currently suffer from a folate deficiency, your body may “rely more heavily on choline” to make up for it, meaning that you’ll need to double down on dietary sources as your body can’t produce enough to meet the new demand, Bauche says. This is most often true for postmenopausal women, as a lack of estrogen can impact the production of other nutrients in the body, according to the Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

    But for most women, pregnancy greatly impacts how much choline you’ll need to eat. “Research suggests that as many as 90% of pregnant women may not be consuming adequate amounts of choline,” Bauche says, explaining that choline may help transport the fatty omega-3 nutrient known as DHA into the placenta, allowing babies’ to develop their brain in the womb. “Women consuming higher amounts of choline actually had better outcomes in terms of cognitive development in their own children.”

    Supplementation research suggests that pregnant women should up their intake to 930mg a day when pregnant (but be sure to check with your doctor about what’s right for you). Since most dietary sources of choline also contain a high amount of DHA — salmon, for example, packs in a solid serving of both nutrients — you’ll find yourself truly eating for two.

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