Meet Choline, The Essential Nutrient You Never Knew You Needed

And find out which foods have the most of it.

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If you already know what choline is, congratulations! You've managed to retain more from your high school science class than anyone else on Earth. If you don't know what choline is, please allow us to play matchmaker, because you and choline have a lot in common. Yes, this nutrient can totally relate to the multitasking madness that is your daily life: Choline helps keep your liver functioning, your muscles strong, your brain sharp, and your metabolism running smoothly — all at the same time.

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But despite its hard and important work, choline gets very little attention. When researchers looked at nutrition data from more than 16,800 people in a June 2015 review, they found that nearly 90 percent of participants over the age of 2 weren't consuming enough choline. That's a lot of health benefits — from having more energy to getting a better figure — to miss out on!

And if you think you're getting enough choline from your multivitamin or mineral supplement, there's a good chance you're not: Most mainstream products don't contain choline in the first place. So, ready to get to know choline better? Here's everything you need to know.

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What Is Choline, Exactly?

Choline is an essential nutrient, meaning the body doesn't make enough of it on its own, so we need to get most of it from food. It is especially important when it comes to liver and muscle healthcholine deficiency can cause muscle damage, liver damage, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. It also plays an important role in making cell membranes and nerve transmitters.

Although more large-scale, clinical research is needed to determine what role it plays in disease prevention and treatment, choline is associated with improved heart health, brain health, liver function, maternal and fetal health, and child development.

Which Foods Contain Choline?

The good news is that choline is in many foods you can easily incorporate into your daily diet. Eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are top sources of choline, as are many cruciferous and dark green veggies. Here's how some common foods stack up in terms of choline, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database:

  • Chickpeas - 1 cup contains 198 mg of choline
  • Eggs - 1 large egg contains 147 mg of choline
  • Chicken - 1 thigh with skin contains 128 mg of choline
  • Shrimp - 3 oz contains 115 mg of choline
  • Salmon - 3 oz contains 96 mg of choline
  • Pistachios - 1 cup contains 88 mg of choline
  • Almonds - 1 cup contains 81 mg of choline
  • Collard greens - 1 cup chopped contains 77 mg of choline
  • Cod - 3 oz contains 71 mg of choline
  • Swiss chard - 1 cup chopped contains 50 mg of choline
  • Cauliflower - 1 cup contains 60 mg of choline
  • Whole Milk - 1 cup contains 35 mg of choline

How Much Choline Do You Need Each Day?

The National Academy of Sciences guidelines suggest that, generally, adult men should get about 550 mg of choline per day, and adult women should get 425 mg per day. Some research suggests that women should get more choline when they are pregnant and breastfeeding, so the recommended daily intake for pregnant and breastfeeding women is 450 mg and 550 mg, respectively.

How do you figure out what that looks like? Great question. Unfortunately, choline isn't currently listed on food labels with the other ingredients that have a percent Daily Value (DV), so you'll have to do a little extra online research to figure out the choline contents of your favorite foods. But in a year or two from now, the FDA's label makeover will make that task much easier.

"The recent FDA rule updating the Nutrition and Supplement facts panel provides for a percent Daily Value (DV) for choline," says Duffy MacKay, ND, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition. "This small but important change to the label will likely increase awareness around the value of getting enough dietary choline and help consumers identify choline nutrient gaps."

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