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The key nutrient you probably can not get enough of



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Eggs are a good source of the nutrient choline. Getty Images
  • Choline is an important nutrient in eggs, meat and dairy products.
  • Researchers note, however, that many people do not get enough of the nutrient.
  • Vegans and vegetarians are at higher risk for lower levels of choline, but experts say people can take steps to supplement their diet.

Despite decades of nutritional advice, recent research has shown that we may still not get enough essential nutrients.

A nutrient that many of us miss? Choline.

In eggs, dairy products and meat, choline was recognized as an essential nutrient by the Institute of Medicine in 1998 .

Over the past 21 years, the institute has recommended the daily intake of choline 550 milligrams (mg) a day for men and 425 mg a day for women, increases to 450 mg during pregnancy and 550 mg for women who breastfeed ,

This amount of choline does not seem to be too difficult, considering that a hard-boiled egg contains about 113 mg of choline.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 90 percent of children (but not infants), pregnant women and adults are inadequate.

According to the National Institutes of Health, choline is an essential nutrient ingredient found in many foods. The brain and the nervous system regulate functions such as memory, mood and muscle control. Choline is also needed to form the membranes that surround the cells of your body.

Although the body produces some choline in the liver, most of the choline comes from the food we eat.

Choline occurs naturally in egg yolk, fish (like salmon), meat and dairy products. The best source is eggs. A large egg can cover 25 percent of the daily choline needs of a pregnant woman and more than half of the choline required for 4 to 8-year-olds.

A discussion paper published in the BMJ on Thursday addresses the question of why switching to plant-based nutrition has aggravated this problem and endangered unborn children.

"Choline is transported to the fetus in the uterus. It is an important nutrient because it is involved in the development of the brain and spinal cord. Deficits could affect children's cognitive development after birth, "said Emma Derbyshire, BSc, PhD, RNutr, and the newspaper's editor, Healthline.

She stresses that the body does not produce enough choline itself.

"The concept that the body will adapt is something of a myth," said Derbyshire. "Choline can be compared to omega-3 fatty acids because it's an 'essential' nutrient that needs to be extracted from food or supplements because the body does not produce enough to meet human needs."

Investigations showed that less than 9 percent of pregnant women meet the minimum daily requirement.

Dr. Praveen S. Goday, CNSC, FAAP, a professor of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at the Medical College of Wisconsin, points out that nutrients are crucial not only for the development of the uterine brain, but also when a newborn becomes a toddler.

Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics has counted choline as one of the critical nutrients that support brain growth during the first 1,000 days of a child's life. In other words, life in the uterus plus the first two years of life, "said Goday.

He warned, "There is concern that failure to provide important nutrients such as choline during this critical phase of brain development can take lifelong brain function deficits despite subsequent nutrient delivery.

Choline withdrawal rates may be related to cholesterol control.

In the 1970s, the American Heart Association began recommending Americans to lower their cholesterol levels to less than 300 mg per day and not more than three eggs per week.

This advice dramatically reduced choline intake as the foods avoided to lower cholesterol were also the best sources of this critical nutrient: eggs, dairy and meat. Eggs are no longer regarded as a harbinger of exploding cholesterol alongside healthy meat and some dairy products.

However, many people still do not eat enough of these foods to achieve the recommended choline intake.

Particularly at risk are vegans and vegetarians who do without fish and dairy products.

While vegetables such as brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, wheat germ, peanuts, and many bean types contain choline, it is difficult – if not impossible – to eat enough to meet our daily minimum needs.

Half a cup of broccoli contains just over 31 mg choline.

"The general population should consider whether they are getting some of the most important diet choline providers like meat, milk and eggs. If these are not consumed, supplementation strategies are needed, "said Derbyshire.

"This becomes especially important in important stages of life, such as pregnancy and postpartum breastfeeding, when choline is crucial for the development of the fetus and the baby," she added.

Goday says that older children can maintain a vegan diet as long as they take care to get nutrients that may be lacking when they are avoiding animal products.

"Children and adults who are vegans need some form of extra vitamins, especially vitamin B-12 and possibly others, and may need additional minerals," said Goday.

He points out that infants can be particularly vulnerable.

"In addition, choline is not a common ingredient in most vitamin supplements for infants, although it is included in some pediatric and prenatal vitamins," Goday said.

The nutrient is associated with a reduced risk of a variety of health problems, especially for disorders that may affect the brain.

Choline protects against age-related cognitive decline. Sufficient choline in the brain protects neurons, brain size and neural networks to prevent memory loss in the aging brain.

Studies show that brain abnormalities in people with dementia and Alzheimer's may be partly related to choline deficiency.

A study of 2011 from the Boston University School of Medicine revealed higher levels of choline intake was strongly associated with better cognitive function. It even prevented brain damage in older people.

One reason for this is that choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine .

This neurotransmitter is responsible for the maintenance of neurons in certain neuronal networks of the brain. These networks are important to the memory. They mainly rely on choline in the diet to function properly.

In addition, drugs called anticholinergics have been implicated in increased Alzheimer's risk because they reduce acetylcholine in the brain.

Dr. James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said in a statement that choline levels are so important that drugs that can negatively impact choline should be avoided for older people.

"Current guidelines for physicians suggest that anticholinergics for the frail elderly should be avoided because of their effects on memory and thinking," said Pickett.

"But physicians should consider these new findings for all middle and older people as we continue to learn more about long-term use and dementia risk," he said.

Choline is an essential nutrient for many body functions, especially for the health of the brain. However, up to 90 percent of Americans have a choline deficiency.

According to experts, this may be due to recommendations from the American Heart Association in the 1970s, as well as a general turn to vegetable diets.

Choline deficiency can have serious consequences for cognitive health before birth until old age.


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