Is the vegan diet deficient in choline? Know the truth

Much is said about the deficiency of different nutrients when following a vegan diet. Is this true? What specifically about the hill?

Written and verified by the nutritionist Anna Vilarrasa on October 29, 2021.

Last update: October 29, 2021

Choline is a nutrient that participates in many functions of the body. This does not produce it in sufficient quantity and must be provided through food. For this reason, it is interesting to know if the vegan diet can be deficient in choline.

In recent decades, more and more people adopt vegetarian diets or reduce their consumption of meat. On the one hand, these are linked to some positive health markers and are more sustainable.

However, this raises a common questioning about the possible lack of nutrients and the need to use supplementation. The last to be questioned is the hill. Find out why the alarm goes off and what is known so far.

Choline: a new but very important nutrient

Choline is present in many plant-based foods, such as broccoli.

Choline is a nutrient recognized as essential in 1998 by the Institute of Medicine. It is an organic component that is soluble in water, but it is neither a vitamin nor a mineral, although it is sometimes part of the group of B vitamins.

Choline’s functions span a broad spectrum of human metabolism. For this reason, experts believe that a deficit could be related to some health problems, such as liver disease, atherosclerosis, or neurological problems.

These are some of the most prominent functions of the hill:

  • It is part of cell membranes.
  • Participates in the formation of neurotransmitter compounds.
  • It is necessary to form a substance responsible for removing cholesterol from the liver.
  • Together with folic acid and vitamin B12 it is essential in the synthesis of DNA.
  • It plays a key role in the formation of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter important for the health of the nervous system and for memory.
  • It is involved in muscle movement and heartbeat.


Omnivore and vegan diets: sources of choline

The body makes small amounts of choline, but not enough to perform all of its functions. For this reason, it is of special interest to know in which foods it is present.

This is a list based on data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the amounts of choline per 100 grams of fresh product in commonly consumed foods:

  • Meats: pork 87 milligrams, beef 71 milligrams, chicken 66 milligrams.
  • Fish: salmon 91 milligrams, cod 84 milligrams, tilapia 83 milligrams.
  • Eggs: 270 milligrams.
  • Vegetables: mushrooms shiitake 80 milligrams, edamame 56 milligrams, Brussels sprouts 40 milligrams, broccoli 40 milligrams, cauliflower 39 milligrams.
  • Nuts and seeds: flax seeds 79 milligrams, pistachios 71 milligrams, pumpkin seeds 63 milligrams, cashews 61 milligrams, pine nuts 56 milligrams, almonds 52 milligrams.
  • Legumes: soybean meal 190 milligrams, soybean meal 120 milligrams, peanut butter 95 milligrams, lentils 94 milligrams, white beans 87 milligrams, pinto beans 66 milligrams.
  • Cereals: amaranth 70 milligrams, quinoa 70 milligrams.


Can the vegan diet be poor in choline?

In the last decades, plant-based diets are on the rise and are increasingly valued as a safe and healthy food option. However, doubts are periodically raised about its ability to meet the needs of some nutrients. This is the case of iron, calcium or omega 3 among others.

In 2019 a writing published by Dr. Derbyshire in the magazine British Medical Journal Nutrition, Prevention and Health raised the alarm by stating that the vegan diet was poor in choline. The reason: the absence in the diet of eggs and meat, two of the ingredients with the most outstanding amounts of choline.

The author reinforces her argument by giving as an example the reference healthy diet compiled by the magazine EAT-Lancet. This reference diet is based on health and sustainability, and focuses on the reduction of meat, eggs and dairy products.

Therefore, and always according to this author, this could lead to a deficit state for a large part of the population. And it could pose a global public health challenge.

Available data on the issue of the vegan diet and choline

So what is the situation? Is the vegan diet low in choline actually a health risk? At the moment, and in the absence of specific studies on the subject, this is what can be said:

  • “Properly planned vegan diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate, and can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These are valid at all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, childhood, adolescence and athletes. This is the position taken by the American Dietetic Association and shared by other bodies and professional associations.
  • For the moment, there is no health alert in relation to the vegan diet and the choline deficiency.
  • In contrast, there is data showing that a high percentage of the American population does not consume enough choline. The same happens in Europe or Australia. According to some experts, the guidelines on choline consumption should be reviewed for the entire general population.
  • Meat, eggs, and dairy aren’t the only sources of choline. This is present in many foods of plant origin.

Need for supplementation

Choline is an essential nutrient, especially during pregnancy.

Choline requirements for the general population vary according to age, sex, and some genetic parameters. At the moment, not all countries have set minimum recommended amounts given the little research available.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established the following reference values:

  • 160 milligrams for babies up to 11 months.
  • 140 to 340 milligrams for children between 1 and 14 years old.
  • 400 milligrams for adults (ages 15 and up).
  • 480 milligrams in pregnant women and 520 milligrams in infants.

In addition, there are individual factors that can vary this amount. Some groups of people are more vulnerable or prone to lack. Among them, pregnant women stand out, as they have higher requirements and their contribution is essential.

In pregnancy, choline is essential for the development of the fetus. It influences the proliferation of stem cells, apoptosis and alters the structure of the brain and spinal cord. For this reason, it plays a role in the development of neural tube defects and in long-term memory function.

Although scarce, some studies evaluate the benefits of choline supplements during pregnancy. However, at the moment the conclusions cannot be generalized or recommended doses can be established. Thus, it is advisable consult with the specialist and do not take supplements on your own.

What is known so far about the vegan diet and choline

Diets with a high presence of vegetables and completely vegan ones are completely compatible with a healthy diet, as long as they are well planned, sufficient and varied. These two premises must also be taken into account in omnivorous diets because, otherwise, these can also lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Therefore, when you follow a vegan diet (or any other type of diet) it is best to find out about the best food sources so as not to run the risk of suffering from these deficits. Likewise, it is recommended to discuss with a health professional the need to take supplements.

In the case of the vegan diet and the lack of choline, experts point out that this can meet the needs of the general population. For it it is good to prioritize foods such as quinoa, amaranth, broccoli, peanut butter, beans, mushrooms or soybeans.

In any case, and due to the wide range of functions performed by the hill, it is interesting to keep abreast of new conclusions and information that may appear in this regard.

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