Choline may not be on your radar, but it should be. This essential nutrient has been highlighted recently because Americans aren’t getting enough of it—only 90% meet their daily needs and 65% don’t even know what it is! Yet, this nutrient is critical for your health, particularly in maintaining a healthy liver system and brain. While everyone needs choline, it seems to be even more important early in life while the brain is developing, and later in life to prevent cognitive decline. That’s why the FDA recently established a RDI (Reference Dietary Intake) of 550 milligrams (mg) for choline for adults and children 4 and above, and a Daily Value (DV, the daily requirement abased on 2,000 calories per day), which you will soon see listed on the Nutrition Facts labels of foods—indicating what percentage of the Daily Value a portion of food provides.
So, where can you get choline in your diet? The top sources include beef liver, eggs, beef, scallops, salmon, chicken, and cod. But where are you going to get choline if you’re a vegetarian or vegan? Vegetarians can get some choline in eggs and milk products. And there are several plant-based sources of choline (see chart below), including legumes, tofu, green vegetables, potatoes, nuts, seeds, grains, and fruit—all of which contain some amounts of choline. However, plant sources are fairly low in choline, making it even more difficult to reach that RDI of 550 mg/day if you’re vegan.
We don’t have a great deal of data on choline intakes among plant-based eaters. But here’s a model menu for a vegetarian eating pattern providing 2,000 calories per day:
- Breakfast: Avocado Toast with Hard Boiled Egg
- AM Snack: Apple & Cheddar Cheese Stick
- Lunch: Loaded Sweet Potato with Brown Rice, Black Beans, Guacamole, Cotija Cheese & Sour Cream
- PM Snack: Non-Fat Latte and Dried Dates
- Dinner: Asian Tempeh Bowl
The estimated daily choline intake of this model menu is 187 mg (37% DV).
So, what should you do? First off, my recommendation for all vegans and vegetarians is to eat a diet rich in whole, minimally processed plant foods, including portions from all the major food groups at each meal: pulses (beans, lentils, peas) or soyfoods, nuts or seeds, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (green vegetables daily). This will help supply a source of important essential vitamins and minerals to your diet, including calcium, iron, zinc, and choline.
My second recommendation for plant-based eaters (particularly for vegans) is to supplement smartly. It is important to supplement a few key nutrients. One is vitamin B12, which is found primarily in animal foods. In addition, I recommend that you consume fortified sources of calcium and vitamin D (for example, in plant-based milk) and evaluate whether you need to take an additional supplement to meet your needs. Other nutrients that may be worth supplementing include long chain omega-3s (algae DHA and EPA) and iodine. And, considering the recent news on choline, it seems worthy to add this nutrient to your list, too.
I prefer to approach supplementation from the perspective that you should supplement your diet with the nutrients you fall short on, not the whole kitchen sink in one pill. For example, plant-based eaters typically get higher levels of vitamins E, A and C, thiamin, riboflavin, and folate than omnivores. So, why supplement all of these nutrients, which may come along for the ride in a multi? And multivitamins may not contain those nutrients you are looking for, such as calcium and choline. A supplement should be just that—a supplement to your diet, covering the shortfall. You may need to only take half the recommended level to meet your diet half way. And remember that overdoing supplements is never a good thing. I recommend sticking as close to the recommended daily level as possible, factoring in that you gain some of these nutrients in your diet, too. For further information on choline, visit The Choline Information Council.
Vegan and Vegetarian Food Sources of Choline
|Almonds, dry roasted||1 ounce||7|
|Apples, raw, with skin||1 large||8|
|Bananas, raw||1 medium||12|
|Bread, whole wheat||1 slice||15|
|Broccoli, cooked||1 cup, chopped||63|
|Brussels sprouts, cooked||1 cup||63|
|Brown rice, cooked||1 cup||18|
|Chickpeas, cooked||1 cup||70|
|Flaxseed, ground||2 tablespoons||11|
|Lentils, cooked||1 cup||65|
|Oats, instant, fortified, plain||1 cup||17|
|Oranges, raw||1 large||16|
|Peanut butter, smooth||2 tablespoons||20|
|Potatoes, boiled, in skin||½ cup||11|
|Quinoa, uncooked||¼ cup||30|
|Soymilk, original and vanilla, unfortified||1 cup||57|
|Sunflower seeds, dried||1 ounce||15|
|Spaghetti, cooked, enriched||1 cup||13|
|Squash, summer, cooked||1 cup||9|
|Tofu, firm||½ cup||35|
|Tomato sauce||1 cup||15|
|Wheat germ, toasted||2 tablespoons||25|
|Milk, skim||1 cup||38|
|Yogurt, low-fat, plain||1 cup||37|
Written by Sharon Palmer, RDN
Note: I would like to thank The Choline Information Council for their support in publishing this blog.