Choline Deficiency: One Reason (Of Many) to Avoid a Vegan Diet

Going vegan is all the rage today. Along with the belief it will save the planet, some believe it’s also a healthier way to eat.

I expect the vegan diet will get even more popular this fall when Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron release their movie The Game Changers. I mean, if most of Hollywood is behind a movement or agenda, it must be the right way to go, right (insert sarcasm here)?

As you might imagine, I’m not a proponent of a vegan diet.

In addition to the more obvious issues of, like missing out on the benefits of a higher-protein diet and omega-3 fats, a just-published article in the British Medical Journal points out another significant concern: choline deficiency.

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What is Choline?

Choline is one of many micronutrients found in animal-based foods. Your body can’t make enough of it, and you don’t get much from plant-based foods.

[Choline] is needed for neurotransmitter synthesis (acetylcholine), cell-membrane signaling (phospholipids), lipid transport (lipoproteins), and methyl-group metabolism (homocysteine reduction).

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Pregnant women who follow a vegan diet are at the greatest risk of choline deficiency. Choline needs double during pregnancy, and inadequate intakes can cause significant damage to the developing baby.

After birth, babies need high levels of choline too. Human breast milk is rich in it. Though a mother’s choline production increases during pregnancy, the massive amount delivered to the fetus, and then to the baby through breast milk, can quickly deplete the mother’s stores of the nutrient.

In addition to causing cognitive dysfunction in infants, choline deficiency in older adults leads to other problems like fatty liver and muscle damage.

In fact, research shows people have developed liver damage when deficient in choline, even when they supplemented with other important micronutrients like methionine and folate.

A high-quality multivitamin should include choline, but that doesn’t mean you can use a quality multi and skip out on animal products and meet your needs. You need both.

Health Risks of Choline Deficiency

The following are some health risks of insufficient choline intake.

Increased risk of neural tube defects

Though increasing folate consumption helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, adequate choline is also needed.

In one study, women in the lowest quartile for choline intake had a four times higher risk of delivering babies with neural tube defect compared to the women in the highest quartile.

Compromised Memory and Cognitive Function

Animal research shows that choline deficiency can compromise memory development in a developing fetus. Interestingly, animal research also shows that if a mother consumes extra choline during pregnancy, it may reduce memory loss in old age of the mother’s offspring.

More simply, a mother’s choline consumption could reduce the chance that her son or daughter will develop memory loss when they get old.

Low choline intakes can lead to other neurological problems as well.

Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Elevated homocysteine is a risk factor for heart disease. To lower homocysteine levels, it must be methylated. However, low choline levels compromise the methylation process and increase the risk of heart disease. Elevated homocysteine may also contribute to cancer, cognitive decline and bone fractures.

Those with higher choline and betaine intakes have lower levels of inflammation, which can also affect cardiovascular disease risk.

Increased Cancer Risk

Low choline levels contribute to DNA damage and cell death. Research has shown a clear connection between low choline intakes and breast cancer risk. However, some research also shows lymphocytes can be damaged by low choline levels, which could contribute to other forms of cancer.

Increased Risk of Fatty Liver Disease

I already mentioned the fact that choline is necessary for methylation. The issues with methylation can contribute to cardiovascular disease risk as well as fatty liver disease.

Alcohol consumption and a diet high in sugar and/or fructose are other common causes of fatty liver disease as well. If you have fatty liver disease, simply increasing your choline intake probably won’t correct it. But if you combine choline-rich foods with fewer carbs and less alcohol, you could heal your liver over time.

Vegan Diets and Choline Consumption

Every time I discuss my concerns about a vegan diet, someone responds with, “Yeah, but what about (that one person they know of)? They are vegan, and they look great, perform well, feel great, etc.”

I know of people who’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes a day their whole life and avoided ill health (other than yellow teeth and nasty breath).

I know of people who eat more fast food than Ronald McDonald and look, perform, and feel great as well.

They’re the exception. And there are exceptions in the world of vegans as well.

I also understand that when people initially adopt a vegan diet, eliminating the processed crap that most people eat, they feel better. It isn’t the fact that they’re eating a vegan diet, it’s that they’re not eating the crap they ate in the past. For a while, I do expect them to feel good. But just for a while.

The history of the human race, and the science behind the nutrients found in animal foods, point to a diet of high-quality, animal foods and some plants as being the best, even if that’s not what’s en vogue right now.