During pregnancy, it can feel like there are more things you can’t do versus things you can. The same can be said for food.
While sushi and wine are off the list of pregnancy-safe options, there are also plenty of other foods that are packed with vitamins and minerals that you can add to your diet.
Adding certain nutrients into your daily diet during pregnancy can have a number of benefits for both you and baby. One of those nutrients is choline.
You might not be that familiar with choline but it's a superstar in the world of essential nutrients. And, it's incredibly important for pregnancy.
We've done the digging for you and have compiled everything you need to know about choline, including how much is needed during pregnancy and the best choline-rich foods to add to your plate. Let's dive in!
What is choline?
Choline is an essential micronutrient (part of the B vitamin group) that everyone needs in their diet. While the liver can produce a small amount of choline, many people don't often get the recommended amount of the essential nutrient.
Sources of dietary choline include poultry, eggs, meat, fish and dairy products, which tend to have the highest levels of choline.
It’s also found in cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, kale and bok choy but these have slightly lower concentrations. Choline has multiple benefits for the body, especially during pregnancy — more on that to come.
What does choline do?
Choline might not seem like a superhero nutrient from the outset, but it has some pretty great benefits. The role of choline in the body is essential for your brain and nervous system function. It also shows promise in preventing some diseases but there’s not yet solid proof.
Choline helps to:
- Form and repair cell membranes, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to get enough of it in your diet if you’re pregnant. Much like folate, choline appears to decrease the risk of neural tube defects (1).
- Produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that’s important for aiding cognitive functions like memory, mood and muscle control (2).
- Aid metabolism function
- Potentially prevent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (though more studies are needed to conclude this).
Some studies suggest cardiovascular disease risk is decreased with adequate intake of choline foods, but again, more studies are necessary to confirm this.
How much choline do you need?
Choline is actually a fairly newly acknowledged nutrient, with dietary intake recommendations established by the food and nutrition board in 1998, which is why there is still plenty more research that needs to be done into daily intake guidelines.
However, according to the Australian Nutrient Reference (3), adult women need approximately 425 mg of choline a day, with men needing around 550 mg a day.
How much choline do pregnant women need?
Since you’re using up a lot of your body’s nutrients to help your baby develop and grow, it makes sense that pregnant women need more of this incredible nutrient (among many others) to make up the difference.
That’s why your intake changes if you’re pregnant; and again during lactation. During pregnancy, it’s recommended that you consume around 440 mg a day, and 550 mg a day if you’re breastfeeding.
Due to its late acknowledgment by the food and nutrition board, many prenatal vitamin supplements don’t contain choline, even though this 2021 study showed that 8.5 per cent of people were tested as having inadequate choline intake (4).
This has nothing to do with the nutrient not being safe for pregnancy (quite the opposite actually), they just haven’t caught up with the research yet.
Kin's Prenatal Vitamins, on the other hand, contain this essential nutrient in the form of bitartrate salt, which is a stable, easily bioavailable form of choline. In fact, it's the same form of choline found in foods, and easier for your body to utilise than pure choline.
While choline is famed for helping the body produce acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter that controls memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions — while also working to boost liver function, its role in pregnancy is can't be understated.
Choline is incredibly important during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester when the baby's brain and neural development accelerates the most.
Of course, you should always consult your doctor before adding any new supplements to your diet.
It’s also really important to make sure you’re eating a well-balanced healthy diet (full of choline foods) throughout your pregnancy (as well as honouring those cravings!) to ensure you’re getting enough of the nutrients your body needs to help your baby develop and grow, while also keeping you healthy.
Why is choline important for pregnancy?
So, we’ve established how much of it you need and where to get it, but why is it important we hear you ask? In 2018, choline was recognised as a “brain-building” nutrient by the American Academy of Pediatrics (5).
Dietary choline and choline supplementation is incredibly important for pregnant people because it:
- Aids foetal development as large amounts of choline-derived “phospholipids” are needed to support cell division, growth and myelination (contributes to brain function) (5).
- Supports the development of the hippocampus in the brain, which is in charge of attention, learning and memory
- Enables blood flow to the foetus
- Reduces the risk of neural tube defects (1).
A pretty insightful 2022 study conducted by Cornell University found that upping choline intake during pregnancy to the recommended amount can also have an impact on children's sustained attention (6), which highlights potential cognitive decline without sufficient choline consumption during pregnancy.
With all of this in mind, there is still more research that needs to be done on choline to determine the extent of its benefits.
Who is most at risk of choline deficiency?
Given that we still don't know a lot about choline and its benefits compared to other nutrients, it's difficult to say who is at risk of a choline deficiency and what exacrly to look out for.
General nutrient deficiencies, including choline deficiency, present with:
- Extreme tiredness and lethargy
- Problems with your memory
- Mood changes
- Muscle problems and aches.
Since choline is linked to liver function, there’s a possibility a choline deficiency could cause issues with your liver. In fact, some research has linked high choline levels in the body to a lower risk of liver cancer, while choline deficiency has been linked to liver disease.
During pregnancy, a deficiency can be linked to neural tube defects. It's also important to include an adequate intake of folate in your diet as both folate and choline help each other do their jobs within the body.
Can you have too much choline in your diet?
By contrast, too much choline isn’t good either. A study from 2019 (5) suggested that animal tests found high levels of methyl nutrients — which include folate (vitamin B9), riboflavin (vitamin B2), cobalamin (vitamin B12), pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and choline (vitamin B4) — actually increased susceptibility of colitis.
That’s why it’s always important to talk to your doctor before introducing a supplement to your diet, particularly when pregnant or lactating.
Sources of choline
As briefly mentioned above, there are lots of food sources of choline. However, some of them aren’t suitable for consumption during pregnancy, including chicken and beef liver. This is because they contain vitamin A, which can be harmful to your unborn baby.
Choline supplementation is also a great way to get your recommended intake of choline and pregnancy vitamins often contain the suggested daily amount so you can be sure you're meeting your choline requirements.
What foods contain the most choline?
To ensure you're achieving your adequate choline intake, here are a few other sources of this essential nutrient (2) that are also pregnancy-safe:
- Egg yolks (147 mg)
- Beef top round (117 mg)
- Soybeans (107 mg)
- Chicken breast (72 mg)
- Cod (71 mg)
- Potatoes (57 mg)
- Kidney beans (45 mg)
- Quinoa (43 mg)
- Milk 1% fat (43 mg)
- Brussel sprouts (32 mg)
- Broccoli (31 mg)
- Mushrooms (27 mg)
- Cottage cheese (26 mg)
- Canned tuna (25 mg)
- Peanuts (24 mg)
- Cauliflower (24 mg)
- Peas (24 mg)
Since choline-rich foods alone can't give you enough choline, it's advised that pregnant people, or those wishing to conceive, begin taking prenatal vitamins as soon as possible.
This will help prevent any neural tube defects, which generally occur within the first four weeks of conception (which is before many people even realise they're pregnant) and gives you and your baby the best chance of a healthy pregnancy and life from day one.
Plus, you can rest easy knowing you’re covered for all of the vital pregnancy-related nutrients with a simple daily tablet or two.
With so much to think about, we know pregnancy can be a little overwhelming — but it doesn’t have to be. Kin's Pregnancy Checklist consists of bite-sized checklist items personalised to your pregnancy journey. Approved by fertility specialists and OBYGN approved, you'll feel prepared to tackle each day as it comes and enjoy the process, rather than get lost in it.