Choline in Pregnancy Supports Baby's Brain Development
November 02, 2022
When you find out you’re pregnant or if you’re trying to get pregnant, one of the first things most women do is to start taking a good prenatal vitamin. This is important because during pregnancy, your body requires larger amounts of many essential nutrients to aid in your baby’s growth and development.
Some of these nutritional needs are well-known. For instance, most pregnant women know that they need extra folic acid, or folate, which is essential in preventing neural tube defects in developing fetuses. Other important vitamins and minerals you may be familiar with include calcium and iron.
But one often-overlooked essential nutrient is choline. Choline – which is found in foods such as eggs, meat and legumes – is crucial during pregnancy, supporting the baby’s development and preventing birth defects. Unfortunately, many prenatal vitamins do not include adequate amounts of this vital nutrient. According to the American Pregnancy Association, an evaluation of the top 25 prenatal vitamins found that none contained the recommended daily amount of choline, and over half contained no choline at all.
How Much Choline Do I Need?
Choline – sometimes referred to as vitamin B8 – is an essential nutrient that our bodies use for things such as cell production, muscle development, memory, and performing crucial nervous system and brain functions.
Although your liver produces some amount of choline, it does not produce enough to support all the body’s functions. Experts recommend that adult women consume about 425 milligrams (mg) of choline daily, and that amount increases to about 450 mg while pregnant and 550 mg while breastfeeding.
Why is Choline Important in Pregnancy?
Choline is responsible for many aspects of fetal development during pregnancy. Research has confirmed the positive effect of choline on a baby’s brain development and function. A recent study found that mothers who consume sufficient amounts of choline during pregnancy can give their babies long-lasting cognitive benefits that continue into childhood and beyond.
In addition to brain development, choline can:
- Prevent neural tube defects and other birth defects
- Support placenta development
- Support spinal cord development
- Prevent the development of some mental illnesses and stress disorders
- Increase self-regulation, attention span, memory and problem-solving skills in older children
Choline is also beneficial to the pregnant person, and is linked to a reduced risk of certain pregnancy complications and an increase in placenta and liver function.
Foods Containing Choline
Incorporating choline-rich foods into your diet is one way you can help ensure you are getting enough for you and your developing baby. And one of the best food sources for choline is eggs – specifically, egg yolks. A single egg yolk contains about 147 mg of choline.
Other sources of choline include:
- Beef liver (356 mg per serving)
- Beef (117 mg)
- Pork (83 mg)
- Salmon (77 mg)
- Chicken breast (65 mg)
- Shiitake mushrooms (58 mg)
- Soybeans (53 mg)
- Broccoli (51 mg)
- Kidney beans (45 mg)
- Quinoa (43 mg)
Though getting your recommended daily amount of choline through the foods you eat is always preferable, studies have found that most people do not get enough choline through diet alone. So for pregnant people who rely on choline for both their baby’s health and their own, choline may need to be supplemented, either with a prenatal that contains an adequate amount of choline or a stand-alone choline supplement. This may be especially important for pregnant women who eat a plant-based diet since the majority of choline-rich food sources are animal products.
As with any dietary supplement, you should talk to your provider before starting a choline supplement to make sure it is safe and that you are taking the correct amount.
Want to learn more about nutrition in pregnancy? UH offers a pregnancy handbook that provides detailed information on pregnancy, including diet and nutrition, childbirth and postpartum care, including a trimester-by-trimester guide, do’s and don’ts, prenatal tests and more. You can find other pregnancy and postpartum information in our pregnancy resources section.