choline-containing foods Choline is not a vitamin or a mineral, but it is an essential nutrient. Although the body can create choline in small amounts, it cannot make enough to maintain health. Choline must be consumed in the diet.

Choline is a component of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in sleep, muscle movement, pain regulation, learning, and memory formation.

Most of the body's choline is found in phospholipids, which are fat molecules. The most common of these is phosphatidylcholine, better known as lecithin.

Functions

Choline's functions include:

  • Helping to maintain the structure of the cell membrane
  • Aiding in the transmission of nerve impulses
  • Playing a role in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine (elevated levels of homocysteine have been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease)
  • Helping to transport fat and cholesterol out of the liver

Recommended Intake

Age group Adequate intake
(milligrams)
FemalesMales
0-6 months125 mg125 mg
7-12 months150 mg150 mg
1-3 years200 mg200 mg
4-8 years250 mg250 mg
9-13 years375 mg375 mg
14-18 years400 mg550 mg
19 and older425 mg550 mg
Pregnant, all ages450 mgn/a
Lactating, all ages550 mgn/a

Choline Deficiency

Although the body can make choline, it cannot make enough to maintain proper health and functioning. Therefore, it is possible for your choline levels to become too low if your diet does not contain enough. Because choline is essential for the transport of fat from the liver, deficiency symptoms include:

  • Fatty accumulation in the liver, called "fatty" liver
  • Liver damage

Choline Toxicity

The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for choline from dietary sources and supplements combined is:

Age group Upper intake
(milligrams)
FemalesMales
0-6 monthsUndeterminedUndetermined
7-12 monthsUndeterminedUndetermined
1-3 years1000 mg1000 mg
4-8 years1000 mg1000 mg
9-13 years2000 mg2000 mg
14-18 years3000 mg3000 mg
19 and older3500 mg3500 mg
Pregnant, 18 years and younger3000 mgn/a
Pregnant, 19 years and older3500 mgn/a
Lactating, 18 years and younger3000 mgn/a
Lactating, 19 years and older3500 mgn/a

Symptoms of choline toxicity include:

  • Fishy body odor
  • Vomiting
  • Increased salivation
  • Increased sweating
  • Hypotensive effect (lowering blood pressure)

Major Food Sources

Very little information is available on the choline content of foods; approximate values are given in the following table.

FoodServing size Choline content
(mg)
Beef liver, pan fried3 ounces355
Wheat germ, toasted1 cup172
Egg1 large126
Atlantic cod, cooked3 ounces71
Beef, cooked3 ounces67
Brussel sprouts, cooked1 cup63
Broccoli, cooked1 cup, chopped62
Shrimp, canned3 ounces60
Salmon3 ounces56
Milk, skim8 ounces38
Peanut butter, smooth2 tablespoons20
Milk chocolate1.5 ounce20

Source: The Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center

Health Implications

Populations at Risk for Choline Deficiency

The following populations may be at risk for a choline deficiency and may benefit from a supplement:

  • Strict vegetarians—A choline deficiency may result if you do not eat animal products, including milk or eggs.
  • Endurance athletes—Studies have shown that some choline may be lost during intense training.
  • People who consume excessive amounts of alcohol—People who abuse alcohol tend to have diets that are lacking in several essential nutrients, including choline.

Choline and Alzheimer's Disease

Because choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important in learning and memory, it has been studied for a possible role in Alzheimer's disease. Studies have been conducted, but a review of clinical trials found no benefit of supplementation with lecithin in the treatment of people with dementia.

Tips for Increasing Your Choline Intake

To help increase your intake of choline:

  • At breakfast, spread a little peanut butter on your bagel or toast in place of butter or cream cheese.
  • Hard boil an egg and grate it onto a salad at lunchtime.
  • For dinner, drink a glass of milk instead of soda.
  • Try sprinkling granular lecithin on top of your cereal, oatmeal, salad, or stir-fry. Just a few teaspoons is all you need.
  • If you are taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement, make sure that it contains choline or lecithin.