As an expecting mother, despite all the excitement and the anticipation, there are indeed many things to worry about and proper nutrition during pregnancy might be one of them. Aspiring to give your baby a strong healthy start to life and to ensure their flourishing growth, you might be wondering what types of food or nutrients to actively incorporate in your diet throughout the duration of your pregnancy.
If this is your situation, you have come to the right blog post! Wellspring Nutrition is here to clear up any confusion and steer you to the right path of healthy eating for you and your baby.
While doing your research, you have likely come across recommendations regarding the different B vitamins, vitamin D &C , calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, folate, choline and so on…
Some of these may sound familiar while for the others not so much. This might become a bit overwhelming.
Thus, in today’s blog post, we will specifically breakdown the importance and the purpose of choline, a potentially overlooked but critical nutrient that pregnant women are highly encouraged to consume adequate amounts of and how you can add them to your prenatal nutrition repertoire.
What is choline?
Choline is a nutrient that plays an essential role in the physiological process of living organisms, as it supports metabolic functions, maintains the structural integrity of cells, and aids the activities of the brain and nervous system. They are present in many of the foods that we are already familiar with (more on this later in this article!), although they are also naturally produced in the human liver. Despite this, many people, including pregnant women, do not reach the recommended intake of choline set by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). As a matter of fact, the National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that 90-95 percent of pregnant women do not consume the adequate intake (AI) of choline. For pregnant women, this AI is set to be 450 milligrams per day, while for lactating women, it is 550 milligrams per day. This is because lactation further increases the bodily demand of choline due to the rich source of choline in human breast milk, making choline a crucial nutrient postpartum as well.
Why is choline intake during pregnancy so important?
Choline assists the anatomical development of the fetus, and consuming the sufficient intake level is associated with decreasing the likelihood of certain birth defects. Several studies also link adequate choline consumption to an improved cognitive function and development for the fetus. Let’s look at these one by one.
Choline plays a crucial role in the overall physical growth of the fetus, particularly for the establishment of the spinal cord as well as the proper brain and neural pathways development especially in the hippocampal region, where its core features involve attention, learning and memory. Choline also supports cellular growth, transportation of macronutrients from the mother to the baby and provides anti-inflammatory benefits during pregnancy. Because certain neurodevelopmental processes of the baby are completed within the duration of the pregnancy, it is important to be conscious of not being deficient in such key nutrients.
Research suggests that choline deficiency during pregnancy is linked to the increased risk of Neural Tube Defects (NTD) while the risk decreases with higher choline consumption. NTD is a serious condition where the neural tube, which is responsible for the initial development of the brain and the spine, does not go through proper closure. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that a spinal cord defect and a brain defect are the two most common forms of NTD.
Additionally, choline supplementation may help prevent premature birth. This is because docosapentaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega 3 fatty acid, has recently been found to be associated with decreasing the likelihood of a preterm birth, and studies have shown that choline supplementation could be a effective approach to increase the availability of DHA in our body.
Maternal choline intake during pregnancy is also potentially associated with the improved long-term cognitive function of the child although further research is needed to support this claim for humans (Many of the previous studies are done on rats and mice…).
There are however several human studies that indicate a strong connection between improved cognitive outcomes such as for information processing speed, memory and learning ability of the child and higher prenatal intake of choline. This may be unsurprising considering how as discussed earlier, adequate choline intake provides the foundation for the healthy neurodevelopment of the fetus.
What food should I eat for choline?
So, how can we achieve this 450~550 milligram-a-day goal?
Here are some foods that are excellent sources of choline:
- wheat germ
- tree nuts such as almonds and pecans
- cruciferous vegetables
For more information, we suggest checking out the USDA Database for the Choline Content of Common Foods to make more informed food consumption decisions!
Should I take supplements?
Animal food products such as whole eggs, meat and seafood contain the most concentrated amount of choline. If you are on a vegan or a vegetarian diet and are concerned about not hitting the daily choline intake goal, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 (chapter 5 covers all of the basics of nutrition during pregnancy) recommend consulting a healthcare specialist for guidance of whether or not taking choline supplements would be suitable for you. It is important to note that many prenatal supplements contain an insufficient amount of choline if any at all. Thus, it is recommended to seek out dietary supplements that consist only of choline, or a combination of choline and B-complex vitamins. These usually contain somewhere between 10 milligrams to 250 milligrams of choline per dose.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 reports that many Americans including pregnant women are failing to meet the recommendations for the consumption of different food groups and subgroups such as vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins. These are food groups/sub groups that contain choline and other essential nutrients that aids a healthy pregnancy.
We will be releasing more articles to spread increased awareness of the importance of prenatal nutrition so please stay tuned and we look forward to seeing you again!
- 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;Apr;32(4):2172-2180. doi: 10.1096/fj.201700692RR. Epub 2018 Jan 5. PMID: 29217669 PMCID: PMC6988845
- “Choline.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/
- “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” 2020-2025, https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/food-sources-calcium
- “Facts About Neural Tube Defects.” https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/facts-about-neural-tube-defects.html#:~:text=NTDs%20occur%20when%20the%20neural,anencephaly%20(a%20brain%20defect).
- Irvine N, England-Mason G, Field CJ, Dewey D, Aghajafari F. “Prenatal Folate and Choline Levels and Brain and Cognitive Development in Children: A Critical Narrative Review.” Nutrients. 2022 Jan; 14(2): 364. doi: 10.3390/nu14020364 PMCID: PMC8778665 PMID: 35057545
- Korsmo HW, Jiang X, Caudill MA. “Choline: Exploring the Growing Science on Its Benefits for Moms and Babies.” Nutrients. 2019 Aug; 11(8): 1823. doi: 10.3390/nu11081823 PMCID: PMC6722688 PMID: 31394787
- “Science Update: High-dose DHA influences immune responses during pregnancy, may reduce risk of preterm birth.”