- Summary and Recommendations
- Functions of Choline
- Choline Requirements
- Choline in Pregnancy and Infancy
- Choline and Cognitive Function in Adults
- Average U.S. Choline Intakes
- Sources of Choline for Vegans
- Choline in a 2,000-Calorie Vegan Menu
Choline is an essential nutrient needed for brain function, fat metabolism, and the health of cell membranes.
Humans make small amounts of choline in their liver but it’s not enough to meet needs and most choline comes from the diet. Foods contain choline in a number of different forms which include free choline, lecithin (also called phosphatidylcholine), sphingomyelin, glycerophosphocholine, and phosphocholine.
Although plant foods are generally lower in choline than animal foods, it’s found in small amounts in a wide range of plant foods. A vegan diet that emphasizes whole foods can provide enough choline.
Summary and Recommendations
Based on the limited research, 300 mg per day of choline may be adequate for most adults. But given the uncertainty, we recommend intakes that come closer to meeting the AI for this nutrient, especially for pregnant and nursing women. Many prenatal vitamins contain low amounts of choline and it may be necessary to supplement with additional choline in order to meet the DRI.
Because choline is toxic at very high intakes, and even moderately high intakes may be linked to cardiovascular disease, if you choose to take choline supplements stick with a low dose and aim to get most of your choline from food.
Functions of Choline
Choline is involved in metabolic processes and in maintaining the structure of cells.
- Most choline is used for synthesis of phospholipids which are an essential component of all cell membranes.
- Like the B vitamins folate and vitamin B12, choline functions as a methyl donor. These compounds are important in many steps of metabolism.
- Choline is needed to synthesize the lipoproteins involved in fat transport.
- Choline is needed to synthesize acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in mood, memory, and muscle control.
The requirement for choline was discovered in the 1990s in people on total parenteral nutrition (TPN), which delivers nutrition directly to the blood, bypassing digestion. Patients who were on TPN for long periods of time developed nonalcoholic fatty liver disease which resolved when choline was added to their feeding regimen (Buchman, 1995; Buchman, 1992; Buchman, 2001). Without choline, the patients were unable to synthesize phosphatidylcholine, a compound needed for fat metabolism and transport (Hollenbeck, 2010).
The recommendation for choline is specified as an Adequate Intake (AI) which means that there is too little information to establish an RDA. The AI for choline is 550 mg/day for men and 425 mg/day for women but these numbers are based on very limited data. They are derived from a 1991 study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Zeisel, 1991). When subjects consumed 50 mg or less of choline per day, they experienced markers of deficiency such as increased liver enzymes, a fatty liver, or elevated creatine phosphokinase (CPK) which indicates muscle deterioration. The deficiency symptoms resolved when the subjects were given supplements providing 500 mg of choline per day. The study didn’t look at the effects of choline intakes between 50 and 500 mg.
Since this study was published, five more studies on choline deficiency have been conducted at UNC Chapel Hill (da Costa, 2004; Fischer, 2007; da Costa, 2006; Fischer, 2010; Kohlmeier, 2005). In all these studies, deficiency was induced with diets that provided about 50 mg or less of choline. A large proportion of subjects developed markers of dysfunction within six weeks, indicating that few people can stay healthy on less than 50 mg/day of choline.
In one of these studies, just 138 mg of choline per 170 pounds of body weight was enough to return CPK function to normal, but the study involved a very small number of subjects, all of whom were men. And the study did not look at liver function (da Costa, 2004). In contrast, in another of the studies, it took 825 mg per 170 pounds of body weight to normalize liver function (Fischer, 2007). These differences may reflect the fact that there are a number of genetic variations that increase or decrease the need for choline.
Premenopausal women were much less likely to develop choline deficiency-associated organ dysfunction. This might be explained by the fact that estrogen protects against the effects of a genetic mutation that raises choline requirements (da Costa, 2006; Fischer, 2010).
Choline can also be turned into betaine, another compound that acts as a methyl donor. Betaine can also be obtained directly from the diet and it may somewhat reduce the need for dietary choline.
It’s worth noting for vegans that vitamin B12 deficiency can interfere with production of choline and choline-containing phospholipids (Cherqaoui, 2013).
|Table 1. DRI for CholineA|
|≥ 19 yrs||425||550|
|A. DRIs, 1998.|
Excessive choline intake is associated with fishy body odor, nausea, low blood pressure, and liver toxicity. The safe upper limit for choline intake is 3,500 mg per day.
Choline and Chronic Disease
Although recommendations for choline intake were established to protect against liver dysfunction, there has been a considerable amount of research looking at possible effects of choline on risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia.
Choline and Heart Disease
Researchers have proposed that choline may protect against heart disease based on its functions in lipid metabolism and as a methyl donor. Methyl donors like choline, vitamin B12, and folate help lower homocysteine levels. Elevated homocysteine may be a risk factor for heart disease.
In the Framingham Offspring Study of 920 men and 1,040 women, higher intakes of choline (above 339 mg/day vs an average intake of 313 mg/day) were significantly associated with slightly lower homocysteine levels (Cho, 2006). And in a cross-sectional study from Greece, subjects with choline intakes above 310 mg had lower markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor), than those consuming less than 250 mg (Detopoulou, 2008). Betaine intakes above 350 mg resulted in lower homocysteine and tumor necrosis factor compared to intakes below 260 mg.
In the Dutch arm of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), higher choline (365 mg versus 239 mg/day) and folate intakes, but not betaine intake, were associated with modestly lower homocysteine levels. But they weren’t associated with incidence of cardiovascular disease (Dalmeijer, 2008).
There was no relationship between higher intakes of choline (which ranged from 300 to 500 mg per day) and heart disease events in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study, which followed more than 14,000 adult subjects for 14 years (Bidulescu, 2007). Finally, an analysis of 72,348 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and 44,504 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study found no association between choline intake and peripheral artery disease (Bertoia, 2014).
Despite its effects on homocysteine levels and possibly on markers of inflammation, there is little evidence to suggest a protective effect of choline against cardiovascular disease.
Choline as a Risk Factor for Heart Disease
While most research has focused on potential impacts of inadequate choline, it’s also been suggested that high intakes of choline could raise the risk for heart disease through its conversion to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). Choline is converted to trimethylamine (TMA) by intestinal bacteria and this in turn is absorbed and converted by the liver to TMAO. Some research has linked TMAO to risk for cardiovascular disease (Zheng, 2016; Zeisel, 2017; Cho, 2017).
Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and University of California at Los Angeles (Wang, 2011) compared compounds in plasma taken from people who experienced death or a heart attack or stroke in the three years following an elective heart evaluation. They compared it to the compounds in plasma taken from age- and gender-matched subjects who did not experience these events. There were 18 compounds that were higher in plasma from the first group, including choline, betaine, and TMAO.
The researchers reported that all three of these compounds showed a dose-dependent association with cardiovascular disease in a large clinical study, the Learning and Validation Cohorts. Further research found that lecithin from eggs increased TMAO production and that higher TMAO blood levels were associated with an increase in major adverse cardiac events (Tang, 2013).
In contrast, a 2017 meta-analysis of six prospective studies did not find an association between choline or betaine intake and cardiovascular disease (Meyer, 2017). Since the relationship of TMAO to cardiovascular disease risk isn’t yet completely clear, it’s too soon to draw any conclusions about high intake of choline as a risk factor (Cho, 2017).
Choline and Cancer
Numerous studies have looked for correlations between choline and various cancers but nothing can be concluded without significantly more evidence (Cho & Holmes, 2007; Cho & Willett, 2007; Johansson, 2009; Lee, 2010; Xu, 2009; Xu, 2008).
Choline in Pregnancy and Infancy
Choline is required for the development of the central nervous system and plays other important roles in pregnancy (Korsmo, 2019). Because of choline’s importance, the American Medical Association recommends that prenatal supplements should include choline. Low choline intake during and immediately prior to pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk for neural tube defects and cleft palate in some studies (Shaw, 2004; Carmichael, 2010; Shaw, 2006).
A report from the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program (Shaw, 2004) found that women with higher intakes of choline, betaine, and methionine in the three months prior to and the three months post-conception had a lower, but statistically weak, risk for having a baby with a neural tube defect. In this study, there were 424 cases of an NTD and 440 controls. Quartiles of choline intake were ≤ 290, 290–372, 372–498, and ≥ 498. The risks for NTD for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quartile compared to the lowest were 0.63 (0.42-0.99), 0.65 (0.39-1.07), and 0.51 (0.25-1.07) respectively. Average choline intake for cases was 377 vs. 409 mg/day for controls.
More recent research does not find a strong association between maternal choline status and risk of a neural tube defect (Mills, 2014).
There is also research to suggest that higher choline intake or better maternal status in pregnancy is linked to enhanced cognitive development in infants and may even have benefits that last into school age (Caudill, 2018; Wu, 2012; Boeke, 2013), although not all studies support these findings (Villamor, 2012; Cheatham, 2012) .
Although a woman’s choline intake may affect levels in breast milk (Davenport, 2015), a study of 74 healthy lactating women found no difference in levels of water-soluble choline (the predominant form of choline in breast milk) among women following vegan, vegetarian, and non-vegetarian diets (Perrin, 2019).
Choline Cognitive Function in Adults
In the Framingham Offspring Study, higher intakes of choline were associated with better verbal and visual memory among adults (Poly, 2011). But a 2015 systematic review of 13 studies found no improvements in cognitive function of healthy adults when they took choline supplements (Leermakers, 2015). In addition, a 2004 Cochrane review of clinical studies that looked at lecithin supplementation in people with memory loss, Alzheimer’s Disease, or Parkinson dementia found no clear benefits (Higgins, 2004).
At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that lower choline intakes are a risk for dementia or that supplements of lecithin or other choline compounds are useful for preventing dementia.
Average U.S. Choline Intakes
Estimates of choline intakes are based on a USDA database that includes more than 630 food items. Based on food intake data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), estimated usual choline intakes among non-pregnant, non-lactating adults is found to be just over 300 mg of choline per day (Wallace, 2016). The findings indicate that only 10% of Americans and 8% of pregnant women meet choline recommendations.
An older study by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found much higher intakes (Fischer, 2005). Among their small study of 32 adults, average intake of choline was close to recommended intakes for women and exceeded those recommendations for men.
No studies have looked at choline intake of vegetarians or vegans.
Sources of Choline for Vegans
While we don’t have studies of choline intake among vegans, we do know that a vegan diet can provide adequate choline. The USDA database of the choline content of foods shows that there are small, but consistent amounts across a range of plant foods. Plant foods that are especially rich in choline include tofu, soynuts, soymilk, cruciferous vegetables, cooked dried beans, quinoa, peanuts, and peanut butter. It’s not clear how much choline is in more processed vegan foods because this hasn’t been measured. See a list of vegan foods and their choline content in table 2, as well as a sample vegan menu in table 3.
In addition, plant foods can be good sources of betaine, a compound that can stand in for choline as a methyl donor in some cases. Betaine is named after beets, and supplements of this compound are often a byproduct of sugar beet processing. Quinoa, spinach, sweet potatoes, beets, and wheat-based breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, and pasta appear to be much higher in betaine than other plant foods.
Note that the USDA database shows the amount of choline per 100 g of food, which may not always be a typical serving size of the food. For example, 100 g of wheat germ provides 180 mg of choline. But that would be more than ¾ cup of wheat germ. A more usual 2-tablespoon serving of wheat germ provides around 27 mg of choline.
Despite the lower choline content of plant foods overall, it is possible to meet the DRI by eating several servings of legumes, including soyfoods and peanuts, and plenty of cruciferous vegetables. Depending on dietary intake, some vegans may need to take a choline supplement to reach the DRI.
|Table 2. Food Sources of CholineA|
|Soymilk, original and vanilla, unfortified, 1 cup||57.3|
|Potatoes, red, baked, flesh and skin, 1 large||56.5|
|Roasted soynuts, ¼ cup||53|
|Kidney beans, canned, ½ cup||45|
|Quinoa, cooked, 1 cup||43|
|Navy beans, cooked, boiled, ½ cup||40.7|
|Collards, cooked, boiled, ½ cup||36.5|
|Tofu, firm, prepared with calcium sulfate and magnesium chloride (nigari), ½ cup||35.4|
|Chickpeas, cooked, boiled, ½ cup||35.1|
|Lentils, cooked, boiled, ½ cup||32.4|
|Brussels sprouts, boiled, ½ cup||32|
|Broccoli, boiled, ½ cup||31.3|
|Pinto beans, cooked, ½ cup||30.2|
|Black beans, cooked, boiled, ½ cup||28.1|
|Shiitake mushrooms, cooked, ½ cup||26.7|
|Wheat germ, 2 tbsp||25.3|
|Soy protein powder, 1 oz||24|
|Peanuts, dry roasted, ¼ cup||24|
|Cauliflower, boiled, ½ cup||24|
|Peas, boiled, ½ cup||24|
|Peanut butter, smooth, 2 tbsp||20|
|Orange, 1 large||15.5|
|Almonds, dry roasted, 1 oz||15|
|Tomato sauce, ½ cup||12.2|
|Carrot juice, canned, ½ cup||11.7|
|Banana, raw, 1 medium||11.6|
|Oatmeal, instant, fortified, plain, prepared with water, 1 cup||11|
|Walnuts, English, 1 oz||11|
|Potatoes, boiled, with skin, ½ cup||10.5|
|Dates, medjool, 4||9.5|
|Bread, whole-wheat, commercially prepared, 1 slice||8.7|
|Zucchini, boiled, ½ cup||8.5|
|Spaghetti, cooked, enriched, 1 cup||8|
|Apples, raw, with skin, 1 large||7.6|
|Tahini, 2 tbsp||7.6|
|Lettuce, cos or romaine, 1 ½ cups||7|
|Avocado, ¼ cup cubes||5.4|
|A. USDA, 2019.|
|Table 3. Choline in a 2,000-Calorie Vegan MenuA|
|1 cup oatmeal, cooked in water||17.3||166|
|2 tablespoons chopped English walnuts||5.8||96|
|1 tablespoon wheat germ||25.3||54|
|1 cup soy milk||57||104|
|1 navel orange||11.8||69|
|1/4 cup dry-roasted almonds||18||206|
|2 corn tortillas||6.4||104|
|1 cup pinto beans||60.4||245|
|1/2 cup cooked sliced portobello mushrooms||19.9||18|
|1/4 cup sliced avocado||5.2||59|
|1/4 cup sliced tomatoes||3||8|
|1/2 cup raw sliced carrots||5.35||25|
|1/2 cup raw cauliflower florets||23.7||13|
|1/4 cup hummus||17.1||109|
|1 cup cooked quinoa||42.6||222|
|1 cup cooked broccoli||62.6||55|
|1 cup tofu||71.4||188|
|1/4 cup peanut sauce (includes 2 tablespoons peanut butter)||20.2||191|
|A. USDA, 2019.|
Given the small amount of evidence on which the DRI for choline is based and that most people don’t meet the DRI for choline, we believe it’s probably unnecessary for vegans to worry about meeting the DRI for choline as long as you’re eating a few servings of higher choline foods each day. People who might become pregnant should probably take a modest choline supplement just to be absolutely sure they’re getting enough. Although studies have not assessed choline status in vegan babies, there have been no reports of choline deficiency symptoms in infants in vegan families.
Last updated June 2020.
Bertoia ML, Pai JK, Cooke JP, Joosten MM, Mittleman MA, Rimm EB, Mukamal KJ. Plasma homocysteine, dietary B vitamins, betaine, and choline and risk of peripheral artery disease. Atherosclerosis. 2014 July ; 235(1): 94–101.
Bidulescu A, Chambless LE, Siega-Riz AM, Zeisel SH, Heiss G. Usual choline and betaine dietary intake and incident coronary heart disease: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. BMC Cardiovasc Disord. 2007 Jul 13;7:20.
Buchman AL, Dubin M, Jenden D, Moukarzel A, Roch MH, Rice K, Gornbein J, Ament ME, Eckhert CD. Lecithin increases plasma free choline and decreases hepatic steatosis in long-term total parenteral nutrition patients. Gastroenterology. 1992 Apr;102(4 Pt 1):1363-70.(Abstract)
Buchman AL, Dubin MD, Moukarzel AA, Jenden DJ, Roch M, Rice KM, Gornbein J, Ament ME. Choline deficiency: a cause of hepatic steatosis during parenteral nutrition that can be reversed with intravenous choline supplementation. Hepatology. 1995 Nov;22(5):1399-403. (Abstract)
Buchman AL, Ament ME, Sohel M, Dubin M, Jenden DJ, Roch M, Pownall H, Farley W, Awal M, Ahn C. Choline deficiency causes reversible hepatic abnormalities in patients receiving parenteral nutrition: proof of a human choline requirement: a placebo-controlled trial. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2001 Sep-Oct;25(5):260-8. (Abstract)
Caudill MA, Strupp BJ, Muscalu L, Nevins JEH, Canfield RL. Maternal choline supplementation during the third trimester of pregnancy improves infant information processing speed: a randomized, double-blind, controlled feeding study. Faseb J 2018;32:2172-2180.
Cheatham CL, Goldman BD, Fischer LM, da Costa KA, Reznick JS, Zeisel SH. Phosphatidylcholine supplementation in pregnant women consuming moderate-choline diets does not enhance infant cognitive function: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1465-72.
Cherqaoui R, Husain M, Madduri S, Okolie P, Nunlee-Bland G, Williams J. A reversible cause of skin hyperpigmentation and postural hypotension. Case Rep Hematol. 2013;2013:680459. doi: 10.1155/2013/680459. Epub 2013 Jun 11.
Cho E, Zeisel SH, Jacques P, Selhub J, Dougherty L, Colditz GA, Willett WC. Dietary choline and betaine assessed by food-frequency questionnaire in relation to plasma total homocysteine concentration in the Framingham Offspring Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Apr;83(4):905-11.
Cho E, Willett WC, Colditz GA, Fuchs CS, Wu K, Chan AT, Zeisel SH, Giovannucci EL. Dietary choline and betaine and the risk of distal colorectal adenoma in women. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2007 Aug 15;99(16):1224-31.
da Costa KA, Gaffney CE, Fischer LM, Zeisel SH. Choline deficiency in mice and humans is associated with increased plasma homocysteine concentration after a methionine load. Am J Clin Nutr.
2005 Feb;81(2):440-4. Not cited.
Dalmeijer GW, Olthof MR, Verhoef P, Bots ML, van der Schouw YT. Prospective study on dietary intakes of folate, betaine, and choline and cardiovascular disease risk in women. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Mar;62(3):386-94.
Davenport C, Yan J, Taesuwan S, Shields K, West AA, Jiang X, Perry CA, Malysheva OV, Stabler SP, Allen RH, Caudill MA. Choline intakes exceeding recommendations during human lactation improve breast milk choline content by increasing PEMT pathway metabolites. J Nutr Biochem. 2015 Sep;26(9):903-11.
Detopoulou P, Panagiotakos DB, Antonopoulou S, Pitsavos C, Stefanadis C. Dietary choline and betaine intakes in relation to concentrations of inflammatory markers in healthy adults: the ATTICA study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Feb;87(2):424-30.
DRIs. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic A Report of the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes and its Panel on Folate, Other B Vitamins, and Choline and Subcommittee on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. 1998:390-422.
Fischer LM, Scearce JA, Mar MH, Patel JR, Blanchard RT, Macintosh BA, Busby MG, Zeisel SH. Ad libitum choline intake in healthy individuals meets or exceeds the proposed adequate intake level. J Nutr. 2005 Apr;135(4):826-9.
Fischer LM, daCosta KA, Kwock L, Stewart PW, Lu TS, Stabler SP, Allen RH, Zeisel SH. Sex and menopausal status influence human dietary requirements for the nutrient choline. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;85(5):1275-85.
Higgins JPT, Flicker L. Lecithin for dementia and cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2000, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001015. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001015. Review content assessed as up-to-date: 5 May 2004.
Johansson M, Van Guelpen B, Vollset SE, Hultdin J, Bergh A, Key T, Midttun O, Hallmans G, Ueland PM, Stattin P. One-carbon metabolism and prostate cancer risk: prospective investigation of seven circulating B vitamins and metabolites. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009 May;18(5):1538-43.
Kohlmeier M, da Costa KA, Fischer LM, Zeisel SH. Genetic variation of folate-mediated one-carbon transfer pathway predicts susceptibility to choline deficiency in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Nov 1;102(44):16025-30. Epub 2005 Oct 18.
Leermakers ET, Moreira EM, Kiefte-de Jong JC, Darweesh SK, Visser T, Voortman T, Bautista PK, Chowdhury R, Gorman D, Bramer WM, et al. Effects of choline on health across the life course: a systematic review. Nutr Rev 2015;73:500-22
Mills JL, Fan R, Brody LC, Liu A, Ueland PM, Wang Y, Kirke PN, Shane B, Molloy AM. Maternal choline concentrations during pregnancy and choline-related genetic variants as risk factors for neural tube defects. Am J Clin Nutr 2014;100:1069-74.
Poly C, Massaro JM, Seshadri S, Wolf PA, Cho E, Krall E, Jacques PF, Au R. The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort. Am J Clin Nutr 2011;94:1584-91.
Savendahl L, Mar MH, Underwood LE, Zeisel SH. Prolonged fasting in humans results in diminished plasma choline concentrations but does not cause liver dysfunction. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997 Sep;66(3):622-5. Not cited.
Tang WHW, Wang Z, Levison BS, Koeth RA, Britt EB, Fu X, Wu Y, Hazen SL. Intestinal Microbial Metabolism of Phosphatidylcholine and Cardiovascular Risk. N Engl J Med 2013(April 25, 2013);368:1575-1584.
Wang Z, Klipfell E, Bennett BJ, Koeth R, Levison BS, Dugar B, Feldstein AE, Britt EB, Fu X, Chung YM, Wu Y, Schauer P, Smith JD, Allayee H, Tang WH, DiDonato JA, Lusis AJ, Hazen SL. Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease. Nature. 2011 Apr 7;472(7341):57-63.
Wu BT, Dyer RA, King DJ, Richardson KJ, Innis SM. Early second trimester maternal plasma choline and betaine are related to measures of early cognitive development in term infants. PLoS One 2012;7:e43448.
Xu X, Gammon MD, Zeisel SH, Lee YL, Wetmur JG, Teitelbaum SL, Bradshaw PT, Neugut AI, Santella RM, Chen J. Choline metabolism and risk of breast cancer in a population-based study. FASEB J. 2008 Jun;22(6):2045-52. Epub 2008 Jan 29.
Xu X, Gammon MD, Zeisel SH, Bradshaw PT, Wetmur JG, Teitelbaum SL, Neugut AI, Santella RM, Chen J. High intakes of choline and betaine reduce breast cancer mortality in a population-based study. FASEB J. 2009 Nov;23(11):4022-8. Epub 2009 Jul 27.
Zheng Y, Li Y, Rimm EB, Hu FB, Albert CM, Rexrode KM, Manson JE, Qi L. Dietary phosphatidylcholine and risk of all-cause and cardiovascular-specific mortality among US women and men. Am J Clin Nutr 2016;104:173-80.