Choline: The Essential Nutrient that Might Be Missing from Your Pregnancy Diet
Prenatal nutrition has focused greatly on nutrients like folate and iron, but recent research shows that choline is just as important for the mother and the baby. From its vital benefits to foods rich in choline, here’s what you need to know about taking choline during pregnancy.
If choline has not been on your radar while you have been looking into what to eat during pregnancy, then don’t be surprised. This lesser-known nutrient related to the B-vitamin family has been tragically overlooked in prenatal nutrition. A study published in Nutrients in 2017 shows that less than 10 per cent pregnant women meet their daily required intake, as choline is widely absent from commercially available prenatal vitamins. This is because the American Medical Association (AMA) first addressed its importance for pregnancy as recently as 2017, and choline, being a bulky nutrient, is hard to be added to pills. Pregnant women might also avoid choline-rich foods such as eggs, fish, and red meats because of their high cholesterol content, a risk factor for gestational diabetes.
But recent research shows that choline is vital for placenta formation and the baby’s brain development in the foetal stage. Various studies conducted over the past decade have concluded that getting a sufficient amount of choline during pregnancy produces long-term cognitive benefits for the child, reduces their risk of developing mental illnesses later in life, and even lessens the possibility of conditions like hypertension and type-2 diabetes.
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Why is Choline Important During Pregnancy?
- It helps in the proper functioning of the placenta
The placenta is an organ formed during pregnancy that protects the developing foetus and provides it with oxygen and nutrition. Choline supports the formation of blood vessels in the placenta, which aids in the proper transportation of nutrition to the foetus. This prevents pregnancy disorders like preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy that damages internal organs) and intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). A study published in 2012 in The FASEB Journal says that choline can also reduce the risk of placental inflammation. Animal studies show that choline can potentially help during placental insufficiency, a rare condition where the placenta does not develop properly.
- It supports foetal brain development Much like folic acid or folate, choline is an essential nutrient for the development of the neural tube in babies, which later forms the brain and the spinal cord. One of the structural components of the brain and nervous system, choline helps in improving cognitive function in babies and reduces the risk of memory decline with growing old. A study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in 2021 found that children whose mothers took an adequate amount of choline during pregnancy did better on challenging tasks that required constant attention when they were 7 years old, compared to those whose mothers did not take adequate choline. A deficiency of choline, suggests a 2020 study by the University of Colorado, USA, can contribute to neural conditions that cause mental illnesses like schizophrenia later in life.
- It reduces the risk of cardio-metabolic diseases in the baby
Paying attention to your choline intake in your pregnancy diet can also have long-term benefits. A study published in Epigenetics in 2014 shows that choline taken in utero reduces the production of cortisol hormone in babies, which in turn reduces the risk of development of hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and immunological disorders later in life.
How Much Choline Do You Need?
The choline adequate intake (AI) level is 450 mg choline per day during pregnancy and 550 mg choline per day during lactation. But current research says that the recommended intake might be insufficient. As much as 900 mg of choline supplementation, or as much choline as present in three large eggs, would be ideal to reap the benefits of this nutrient, shows the study by the University of Colorado. But research on this is still ongoing, and the official recommendations have not yet been updated. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist to figure out the amount of choline you should take every day while pregnant.
What are Some Food Sources of Choline?
Natural sources high in choline are predominantly animal-based. Egg yolks, fish, chicken, turkey, pork and beef all contain more than 60 mg choline per 100 g. Plants sources of foods rich in choline include legumes, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts, which provide about 25 mg per 100 g.
Are There Any Side Effects?
According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, USA, the tolerable upper limit of choline intake is 3.5g per day. The side effects of consumption of more choline than this include a drop in blood pressure, sweating, fishy body odour, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. But this amount would be impossible to ingest purely from dietary sources.