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Choline Deficiency During Pregnancy May Harm Infants


Ten percent or less of women get a sufficient amount of choline during pregnancy, which may place their infants at increased risk for health problems. Results of a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that choline deficiency increased risk for heart defects during prenatal development.

Choline is a nutrient that is required for normal cell function, healthy nerve and braining functioning, transporting nutrients throughout the body, and liver metabolism. Unfortunately, research shows that ten percent or fewer pregnant women, older children, men, and women in the United States meet the recommended intake levels of choline.

In 1998, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine established an Adequate Intake (AI) level for choline because they felt the existing scientific evidence was not sufficient to calculate a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The AI for adult men is 550 mg, for adult women 425 mg, and for pregnant women, 450 mg.

Researchers from McGill University and Cornell University evaluated the offspring of mice that had ingested a choline-deficient diet during pregnancy and compared them to offspring of mice that consumed a diet with the recommended amount of choline. Heart defects were more common among the mice exposed to a choline-deficient diet.

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A choline deficiency was also associated with elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and reduced cognitive functioning. Previous research has shown that choline helps break down homocysteine in the blood. A recent study published in Behavioral Neuroscience reported that choline intake during pregnancy and lactation is associated with improved attention function.

Yet another important function of choline is in preventing birth defects. Marie Caudill, PhD, RD, associate professor at Cornell University, pointed out that “women with diets low in choline have two times greater risk of having babies with neural tube defects.”

The richest source of choline in the diet of Americans is actually from an additive called lecithin (phosphytidylcholine), according to the George Mateljan Foundation. Lecithin is an emulsifier, derived from soybeans, that is added to many foods to help keep components of the food blended together. Excellent to very good food sources of choline include soybeans, eggs, beef, shittake mushrooms, salmon, whitefish, bananas, lentils, barley, peanuts, cauliflower, flax seeds, sesame seeds, oranges, and tomatoes. Ginger root is also a source of choline.

Research indicates that choline deficiency during pregnancy presents health risks for infants. Women who are planning to get pregnant or who are already pregnant should consult a nutritionist, dietician, or other knowledgeable professional to ensure they are getting adequate amounts of choline and other nutrients to safeguard the health of their baby. More information about choline can be found at cholineinfo.org.

Chan J et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010; 91:1035-43.
Lee JE et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010; 91:1303-10
Moon J et al. Behavioral Neuroscience 2010; 124:346-61.
Shin W et al. Journal of Nutrition 2010; 140:975-80