Plate with vegan or vegetarian food in woman hands with choline-packed foods
Mind games (as in puzzles—not toxic tactics) are often recommended to bolster brain health as our birthday cakes become more crowded with candles. Ditto for physical activity and a good night's sleep. But what about about diet? Is it possible to eat your way to a sharper mind?
Dietitians dish that it is and warn our meal plans are missing enough of a critical nutrient for brain health: choline.
"Choline is an essential nutrient needed for bodily processes, including regulating brain and nervous system functions like mood, memory and muscle control," says Ali Bandier, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and the founder of Senta Health.
The liver produces choline—but not enough for daily needs. We need to consume the rest, but 2018 research shows that about 90 percent of people in the U.S. aren't getting enough. It's a scary number, but experts share that consuming more is possible. The best news? Your tastebuds will be as happy as your noggin. Here, dietitians discuss choline, brain health and which foods are packed with this essential nutrient.
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What Is Choline?
It's not a vitamin or mineral, so what is it? "Choline is an essential vitamin-like nutrient considered to be a water-soluble micronutrient," says Jenny Beth Kroplin, RDN, LDN of In Her Haven.
Often, Kroplin gets asked if choline is the same as a B vitamin, and the answer is no. "While choline is not technically a vitamin or a B vitamin, it is often grouped in the vitamin B category since it serves many similarities and benefits like B vitamins do on behalf of the body," she says.
Why Is Choline Important for Brain Health?
Choline is produced naturally by the liver but significantly benefits the brain as well. As Bandier noted, the brain uses choline to regulate critical functions like learning, and Maxine Smith, RDN, LD, CSOWM of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human shared that choline serves another key role in brain health.
"Choline helps build and protect brain cells and nerves," Smith says. "For this reason, it is particularly important during the earliest stages of life. It may be protective against neurological disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease."
In fact, choline's importance to cells extends past "just" the brain and the entire body.
"All of our cells need choline to help maintain their structure," Smith says. "Choline is important for our genes and metabolism to work correctly, which helps with healthy development and aging throughout the lifespan."
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How Much Choline Do You Need Daily?
It varies. These are the daily recommendations, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
Recommended choline intake
Birth to 6 months
7 to 12 months
1 to 3 years
4 to 8 years
9 to 13 years
14 to 18 years (boys)
12 to 18 years (girls)
19+ years (men)
19+ years (women)
Foods High in Choline
Now for the important part: How can you get more choline in your diet? Start with these foods.
Smith is a huge fan of eggs for their versatility and 356 mg of choline.
"Add sliced eggs to green salads, mix with Greek yogurt and avocado for a healthy egg salad or with the yolks for deviled eggs for game day," Smith says. "On a cold winter's day, drizzle a beaten egg into chicken broth for egg-drop soup. A make-ahead veggie-packed egg bake is an easy one-dish breakfast to serve your holiday company dinner."
Busy? Smith suggests making several hard-boiled eggs and enjoying them over the next few days.
2. Kidney beans
This popular plant-based protein boasts 45 mg of choline per half-cup serving.
"Try a three-bean chili served over brown rice and topped with cottage cheese, two other choline-rich foods, for a great boost of this nutrient," Bandier suggests.
3. Beef liver
One of the richest sources of choline around, 3 ounces of beef liver contains about 356 milligrams of choline. Before you turn up your nose, hear an expert out.
"While liver may not top the list of foods people like, it can be sauteed with onions, mushrooms and garlic, made into a paste to serve with crackers or toast, or added to a colorful stir fry with a flavorful sauce," says Sherie Nelson, MBA, RDN and wellness director at Elior North America.
4. Cruciferous and green vegetables
Veggies have a habit of showing up in advice on healthy eating, and—surprise!—many of them contain choline. Kroplin says that a cup of cooked cauliflower packs 72 mg of choline, which is 13 percent of your daily need. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts have 30 mg, which is 5 percent of your recommended daily value.
"Try tossing these cooked or roasted vegetables over a warm salad bowl, mix with a favorite protein source, add as a side dish or throw in a hearty stew. These are all great ways to benefit from the choline in this group of goods," Kroplin says.
5. Chicken breast
Another stellar source of protein, chicken breast is also loaded with choline. Smith says a 3-ounce serving of chicken has 75 mg of brain-boosting choline.
"Chicken breast is a safe bet for pleasing friends and family," Smith says.
Smith suggests buying thin-cut chicken or pounding breast until it's thin and tossing it in your favorite marinade. From there, thread it on small skewers and grill it. "Serve with a dip such as garlic tahini or spicy buffalo sauce," she adds.
Soybeans offer vegetarian types another way to up their protein (and choline) intake. Nelson says a half-cup serving will run you about 107 mg of the nutrient.
"Add edamame to a stir fry or whip it into hummus," Nelson suggests. "Steam edamame pods and lightly salt for a delicious appetizer."
Nelson adds that you can also throw silken tofu into your next smoothie for a filling breakfast or snack.
Smith says a large red potato has 57 mg of choline, recommending: "Forget the bag of potato chips and wow your crowd with homemade French fries."
She also suggests air-frying them in avocado with a light sprinkle of rosemary, salt and pepper for a dish that'll do your brain, tastebuds and nose good.
"The fragrant aroma is a kitchen magnet," Smith says.
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Do You Need a Choline Supplement?
Probably not. Smith says people should consume most of their nutrients from foods and drinks, citing the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "There are numerous nutrients in foods that work together to benefit our health."
Nelson agrees. If you go the supplement route, Nelson suggests being choosy.
"Because supplements are not regulated by the FDA, look for supplements labeled with third-party testing, such as ConsumerLab.com, NSF, UL, or USP, to ensure you are getting what you paid for," Nelson says. "There are no known interactions between choline and any food or medicine."
Nelson notes that there aren't any interactions between choline and food or medicine that we know of, but it's always a good idea to talk it over with your healthcare team before taking a supplement.
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