Choline on a Vegan Diet – Sources, Requirements, Day on a Plate

March 26, 2022

Choline is an essential nutrient that hasn’t received much attention until recently, yet it plays a vital role in keeping our body happy and healthy. It is predominantly found in meat, dairy and eggs. Therefore, those aiming to get enough choline on a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet need to plan carefully to avoid deficiency.

 

What is choline?

Choline is a vitamin-like compound that plays many important roles in the body. It is used for brain function, cell membrane health and metabolism of fat from the food we eat (1).

This nutrient is essential in making acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. Acetylcholine helps regulate our nervous system, muscle contractions and cognitive function (7).

 

Why is choline important?

Choline is important for many different reasons, including:

 

Cognitive (brain) health:

  • This nutrient assists with the production of an important neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine assists with sleep regulation and mood (7)
  • Studies have found a link between higher cognitive performance in adults and choline intake (5, 7)
  • Those with Alzheimer’s disease have lower levels of the enzyme that converts choline into acetylcholine (2)
  • This nutrient also plays a role in making DNA which is important for brain development

 

Liver health:

  • Choline is important for producing a compound that assists with transporting cholesterol from your liver. Deficiency in this compound has links with developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) from the build-up of cholesterol (3)

 

Prenatal health:

  • Choline is essential in the development of neural tubes in foetuses. Deficiencies in this nutrient while pregnant may negatively impact the child (2)

 

Heart health:

  • As acetylcholine plays a vital role in dilating blood vessels, this assists in lowering blood pressure (2). Higher intakes of choline have been linked with reducing the risk of heart disease (3)

 

choline-rich foods on a vegan diet include lentils, peas, kidney beans, chickpeas

 

Choline requirements on a vegan diet

While a small amount of choline is made in the liver, most must be obtained through dietary sources. The adequate intake as measured by the Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand (1) is listed below.

It is important to note that requirements increase for women that are pregnant or lactating.

 

Age Group Choline Adequate Intake (AI) per day
Infants and Children

0-6 months

7-12 months

1-3 years

4-8 years

9-13 years

 

125mg

150mg

200mg

250mg

375mg

Women

14-18 years

19+

Pregnant

Lactating

 

400mg

425mg

440mg

550mg

Men

14-18 years

19+

 

550mg

550mg

 

The recommended upper level (UI) for daily intake of this nutrient is 1000mg for children and 3500mg for adults (1).

 

Sources of choline on a vegan diet

As discussed, the richest sources of choline are meat, dairy and eggs. Fortunately, there are also many plant-based sources. Some of these are listed in the table below (2,4):

 

Food Serving size Choline (mg)
Soybeans, roasted ½ cup 107
Tofu, fried 100g 106
Wheatgerm, toasted ½ cup 101
Kidney beans, canned 1 cup 90
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 71
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 65
Edamame, cooked ½ cup 56
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 43
Sundried tomatoes 30g 32
Brussel sprouts ½ cup 32
Broccoli ½ cup 31
Shiitake mushrooms ½ cup 27
Protein powder, soy 30g 24
Peanuts, roasted ¼ cup 24
Cauliflower ½ cup 24
Peas ½ cup 24
Peanut butter, smooth 2 tbsp 20
Sunflower seeds, roasted ¼ cup 19
Brown rice, cooked 1 cup 19
Almonds 30g 16
Cabbage, boiled ½ cup 15
Orange 1 large 15
Banana 1 medium 12
Walnuts 30g 11

 

Note that wholegrains and legumes are the richest sources of this nutrient.

 

sliced wholegrain bread rich in choline on a vegan diet

 

Vegan high choline day on a plate

To ensure you’re eating enough of this nutrient throughout the day, here is an example of how to incorporate choline-rich foods in every meal:

 

Breakfast

Approx. 73mg

Porridge with wheatgerm (¼ cup) and oats (¼ cup) topped with 1 tbsp of peanut butter, 1 medium banana and blueberries

 

Morning Snack

Approx. 24mg

Mixed berry smoothie with vanilla protein powder (30g), 1 cup frozen mixed berries, 1 cup soy milk and a handful of ice cubes

 

Lunch

Approx. 174mg

Nourish bowl with 1 cup quinoa, ½ cup cauliflower, ½ cup soybeans, ¼ avocado, a handful of rocket and 1 tbsp tahini dressing

 

Afternoon Snack

Approx. 25mg

Mixed nuts (30g – e.g. peanuts, walnuts, almonds) with plant-based yoghurt and 1 orange cut in slices

 

Dinner

Approx. 251mg

Tofu fried rice with 1 cup brown rice, tofu (100g), peas (¼ cup), broccoli (½ cup), shiitake mushrooms (½ cup) and edamame (½ cup)

 

Total: approx. 547mg

 

Signs of choline deficiency

Deficiency in this nutrient can affect health in these main areas:

 

Liver:

  • Long term choline deficiency can result in muscle and liver damage.  Research shows that deficiency can cause abnormal accumulation of fat in the liver resulting in a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (3).
  • A third of those who develop NAFLD may progress to a more extreme liver condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. This condition indicates there is significant inflammation and damage to liver cells.

 

Prenatal:

  • Women who are pregnant or lactating have higher requirements for this nutrient and by not consuming enough, birth defects may occur in the infant. Studies found that pregnant women that were deficient in choline had a much greater risk of their unborn babies developing neural tube defects (2, 3).

 

Cognitive:

  • Feelings of restlessness, fatigue and anxiety can be signs of deficiency. As stated above, those with Alzheimer’s disease are found to have lower levels of the enzyme that helps convert choline into acetylcholine (2). Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include memory loss, confusion and mood swings.

 

Does following a vegan diet affect your risk of choline deficiency?

In Australia, there is little concern for deficiency within the general population.

As many choline-rich foods stem from animal origin, vegans and vegetarians with a diet high in refined and processed foods can be at risk of developing a choline deficiency (1).

However, with careful planning and a diet high in whole foods, it is possible to meet dietary requirements to avoid deficiency.

 

Choline supplements

If required, supplements for this nutrient can be found in many forms. For example, lecithin can be used as a food additive or is available as a choline supplement. Other names for these supplements are:

  • CDP choline
  • Alpha GPC
  • Choline chloride

If required, supplements range from 200mg to 2000mg dosages. However, it is important that some people may experience negative side effects from consuming doses that are too high (6).

 

choline supplements on a vegan diet - capsule, tablets, pills

 

Side effects from excessively high choline levels include (2):

  • Sweating
  • Fishy body odour
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is best to speak to your GP.

 

Should you supplement choline on a vegan diet?

With planning and including a variety of whole foods, meeting daily choline needs are attainable with a food-first approach.

However, as deficiency during pregnancy can cause birth defects, pregnant women that struggle with eating enough of this nutrient may look to include a supplement.

As requirements for males are higher than women, some vegan or vegetarian men may find it difficult to consume enough of this nutrient on a day-to-day basis.

Before starting any supplementation program, it is important to talk to your doctor and/or dietitian.

 

Summary

Choline is an important nutrient for the brain, heart and liver. It is usually found in foods with animal origins, so vegans and vegetarians should take care to ensure deficiency is avoided. A diet high in legumes and vegetables can assist with increasing intake of this nutrient.

Our dietitians at Plant Nutrition and Wellness are experts in plant-based and vegan nutrition. If you have concerns about meeting your choline requirements, book a consultation to discuss how we can help.

 

References

  1. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/choline
  2. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/
  3. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/choline#reference77
  4. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/?component=1180
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22717142/
  6. https://examine.com/supplements/cdp-choline/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557825/

 

This article was co-written by student dietitian Leanna Fyffe and PNW dietitian Megan Boswell. 

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