You have a lot to think about when you’re pregnant. With so many changes going on, you may not be thinking specifically about nutrition and pregnancy. You certainly may not be thinking about how choline benefits your growing baby.
The nutrients in prenatal vitamins may vary considerably from brand to brand. And most don’t supply any choline. Choline benefits your baby in a number of important ways. It is a nutrient that supports the development of your baby’s brain and neural tube. It may also help by reducing inflammation that could lead to pregnancy complications. Needless to say, it is important that your prenatal vitamin contains choline for baby’s development.
What is Choline?
Choline is an essential nutrient. This means that although your body can make small amounts of choline, it can’t make enough to meet your needs, so you need to eat foods rich in choline and take a supplement to get the amount your body requires.
First discovered in 1998, choline is a vitamin-like compound that supplies building blocks for other important compounds in the body, it is needed for cell membrane signaling and lipid transport among many other roles.
Choline is critical for the normal functioning of liver cells and cells in the central nervous system including the brain.
Choline During Pregnancy
It’s unlikely that you’re getting all the choline you need from food alone, as experts estimate that only 10% of pregnant women are meeting their daily need for choline. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to structure your meals by choosing choline-rich foods such as this slow cooker beef and mushroom stew by Registered Dietitian Elizabeth Ward, author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy.
According to this article by Dr. Taylor Wallace, eating eggs and taking a prenatal supplement with choline is crucial for meeting the increased choline needs during pregnancy. It is reasonable to recommend taking a prenatal with 250-300 mg of choline to help you meet these higher needs.
How Choline Benefits Baby’s Development
As we mentioned earlier, choline benefits the development of your baby’s brain and neural tube. It may also help reduce further pregnancy complications.
Choline and baby brain development
Choline is especially important in pregnancy for the development of the baby’s hippocampus, which is an area of the brain connected to memory. In a small study, women were given choline during the last trimester of pregnancy, one group of pregnant women group was given 480 mg choline and the other group was given 930 mg per day. Then, their babies were examined at 4, 7, 10 and 13 months of age for processing speed and visual-spatial memory, which is thought to be linked to IQ. Both groups showed cognitive benefits, and the 930 mg choline group showed significant benefits for processing speed.
Based on these results, the researchers recommend a supplement plus increased dietary choline by having (properly cooked, of course!) egg yolks, lean red meat, poultry and fish during pregnancy. For pregnant women who do not consume animal products, the researchers recommend a 450 mg choline supplement. The recommended goal is still 450 mg during pregnancy, despite the benefits for additional choline in some studies.
Protection against neural tube defects, cleft lip and palate
A study of 180,000 pregnant women showed that higher blood levels of choline had a protective effect against neural tube defects. A 2013 study reports that women consuming a low level of dietary choline, about 150 mg daily, had an increased risk for neural tube defects and orofacial cleft, more commonly referred to as cleft palate or cleft lip.
Fewer stress-related diseases for baby
In a 2012 study, higher choline intakes were shown to alter placental markers of prenatal stress such as cortisol. The authors discuss the exciting possibility that these findings could indicate a reduced risk of stress-related diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and depression later on in life.
Protein-rich foods from animal sources are some of the best sources of choline, with egg yolks topping the list. As you see from this list, you can get choline from a wide variety of foods. This list is sorted from the highest values to the lowest, plus you can search the list by clicking on Food Search from the top menu and typing in the food name.
If you’re vegan, you can get choline from non-animal sources, but you will have to plan your diet well to supply enough choline through your diet and a prenatal supplement.
Nutrition and Pregnancy: Healthy Pregnancy Recipe
You still need to take a prenatal vitamin to get all of the required nutrients for a healthy pregnancy. However, you can still incorporate healthy pregnancy recipes into your daily meal plan. Here is a recipe that supplies 104 mg choline from vegetarian sources.
Throw this breakfast together on a busy morning by preparing a batch of quinoa in advance. Cooked quinoa will keep it in your refrigerator for up to three days.
Oatmeal with Quinoa, Dates and Sunflower Seeds
- ½ cup quinoa, cooked amount
- 1/3 cup dry oatmeal
- Dash salt
- 1 teaspoon light butter
- 1 Medjool date, chopped
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 2 tablespoons wheat germ
- Prepare quinoa and oatmeal according to package directions.
- In a bowl toss together quinoa, oatmeal, salt and light butter.
- Add the chopped date and sunflower seeds and stir together.
- Sprinkle wheat germ over the top.
During pregnancy, the mother delivers large amounts of choline to her baby through the placenta, so it’s critical to take a prenatal supplement that provides choline as well as choosing foods rich in this nutrient. With a little bit of planning it’s easy to identify choline-rich foods in your meals! Be sure to compare prenatal supplement labels to ensure you’re getting the increased choline that health experts recommend.
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