If you’ve been vegan for a little while, or you’re planning on making the transition soon, you’ve probably done some research on how to get a few crucial nutrients without eating animal products. Yes, it’s true that a well-rounded, plant-based diet is perfectly healthy, but it’s also important to make sure you’re not missing out on anything vital – after all, this is whole new approach to nutrition for many of us, and at first, it can take some careful planning to ensure you’re getting everything you need.
Of course, every vegan has heard that they should supplement with B12 (and ideally, incorporate some foods fortified with B12 into their diet). Others may choose to supplement with algae-based omega-3 or Vitamin D. But there are a few other key nutrients that vegans might overlook, and putting a little extra effort into meal planning can help safeguard you against deficiencies. One of those helpful nutrients is choline.
What is choline? Well, it’s not a vitamin, but it’s not a mineral, either. This nutrient is a water-soluble compound. Our livers can actually make limited amounts of choline, but we get most of our choline from food. Even though you may not have heard of choline before, it takes care of some pretty important functions in the body. For example, choline is essential for brain development. It boosts overall brain function, improves your long and short-term memory, helps you stay alert, and it can even help protect against certain mental health conditions. But choline isn’t just necessary for your brain – it also improves your liver function and metabolism. A choline deficiency can lead to liver disease, neurological disorders, and atherosclerosis. Other symptoms include muscle twitching, difficulty focusing, mood swings, and nerve tingling.
So, how much choline do you actually need? The amount varies. There aren’t any hard and fast nutritional requirements, but there are some helpful guidelines. The recommendation for pregnant women and breastfeeding women is 450 milligrams. Adult men should aim for 550 milligrams per day. For adult women, it’s 425 mg.
For a nutrient that you may not have heard of before, choline actually packs a pretty powerful punch. This is exactly why vegans need to be careful about including choline-rich foods in their diet. People who eat animal products get most of their choline from eggs, beef, and seafood. These foods are rich in choline, and if you include them in your diet, you’ll have no problem getting enough. Going vegan without replacing those sources of choline can leave you lacking. But the good news is there are a few solid plant-based sources of choline out there that can help you meet your recommended amount.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts are all great sources of choline. So are soy foods like tofu and soy milk. Cooking with soybean oil can also help you consume more choline without much effort. Mushrooms, pinto beans, and quinoa all contain choline, and snacking on almonds, walnuts, and crackers or toast with peanut butter can boost your choline intake, too.
How can you meal plan with choline in mind? Since you have a variety of options to suit your tastes and nutritional needs, it’s actually pretty simple – and all of these foods are quite affordable. Tossing broccoli, tofu, and sliced mushrooms into a stir fry together is an easy way to create a choline-rich meal. You can also incorporate mushrooms into a tofu scramble, or throw them into a pasta primavera dish with broccoli. Chili with pinto beans and quinoa would also be packed with protein, choline, and plenty of other essential vitamins and minerals. Keeping a carton of soy milk in your fridge for smoothies, coffee, and baking can help you meet your daily recommendations. Starting your day with peanut butter on wheat toast and stocking almonds and walnuts in your pantry doesn’t hurt, either. And every vegans’ favorite appetizer, buffalo cauliflower, never sounded so good!
If you’re not a fan of many of these foods, or you have other dietary restrictions like allergies or sensitive that make consuming soy, mushrooms, or nuts a non-option, there are also supplements available. Not every vegan will need to supplement with choline, but if you know that some of these choline-rich foods are off-limits for you, supplementing is definitely the smartest choice. It’s especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding women to get enough choline, so if you’re expecting and concerned about your choline intake, talk to your doctor to see what they would recommend. And for all the parents of vegan kids out there, make sure there’s enough choline on your child’s plate! Overall, getting enough choline in a vegan diet is fairly easy, as long as you can rely on a few good plant-based sources.
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Photo: Alexa Pizzarello