A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a choline-deficient diet is associated with increased risk for heart defects during prenatal development. Choline is an essential nutrient required for normal cell activity, healthy brain and nerve function, liver metabolism and transportation of nutrients throughout the body. Research shows that only 10 percent or less of older children, men, women and pregnant women in America are meeting the Adequate Intake (AI) levels for choline; despite a growing body of science which supports the importance of choline especially in healthy fetal development.
The Importance of Choline Throughout the Lifespan
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined adult dietary intake of choline and betaine (a nutrient related to choline) and found that higher intakes of choline and betaine were associated with lower blood homocysteine concentrations, especially in subjects with low blood levels of folate and vitamin B12.4 Choline, like folate, is involved in breaking down homocysteine in the blood. Elevated homocysteine concentrations have been associated with increased risk of stroke, coronary heart disease and cognitive decline.
In May, a study published online in the Journal of Nutrition reported on the role of choline in the complex system that regulates DNA production and stability. Researchers studied the impact of choline intake on DNA damage in 60 Mexican-American men. They found that individuals with greater intakes of choline, even exceeding current dietary recommendations, exhibited the least amount of DNA damage.
Vital Role of Choline During Pregnancy
A growing body of science, conducted in both animals and humans, supports the need for more dietary choline. Researchers from McGill University and Cornell University examined the offspring of mice that consumed a choline-deficient diet during pregnancy compared to the offspring of mice that consumed a diet containing the recommended amount of choline. The researchers observed that heart defects were more prevalent among the offspring of mice consuming a choline-deficient diet. The study also found that low choline intake was associated with increased levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that, when elevated, is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and declined cognitive function.
"Choline is a complex nutrient that is intricately involved in fetal development, and this research reveals another piece of the puzzle,"according to Cornell University Associate Professor, Marie Caudill, Ph.D., R.D. "Women with diets low in choline have two times greater risk of having babies with neural tube defects so it's essential that nutrition education during pregnancy and breastfeeding highlight the importance of dietary sources of choline."
Another study, published in the June issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, reported that choline intake during pregnancy and lactation is associated with improved attention function. The researchers observed that offspring of female mice consuming a diet supplemented with choline during pregnancy and lactation performed significantly better on attention tasks compared to offspring from mothers consuming a diet not supplemented with choline.
Focusing on a Choline-Rich Diet
"Choline is important for people of all ages, particularly moms and moms-to-be," says Neva Cochran, M.S., R.D., nutrition communications consultant and nutrition writer and researcher for Woman's World magazine. "It is easy to meet the recommended choline intake with delicious foods like an egg, which is an excellent source of choline and provides roughly one-quarter of a pregnant or breastfeeding woman's choline needs."
Eggs, soy, peanuts and almonds are good sources of choline.
Strict vegetarians who avoid all animal products, endurance athletes and people who drink a lot of alcohol may be at risk for choline deficiency and may benefit from choline supplements.