Choline and lecithin

Dark chicken eggs in straw

by Catherine M. Haug,  January 2011; updated 4/12/19 (image, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

Lecithin is made from two B-vitamins: inositol (B8) and choline (B4). Both are important nutrients for brain development (7):

  • Inositol has a calming effect on the central nervous system and is used to treat depression, anxiety attacks, and insomnia.
  • Choline affects the areas of the brain responsible for memory function and learning. Research shows that choline can improve memory and may help prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and age-related memory loss.

Choline and inositol also play a role in preventing cancer, promoting heart and arterial health, and promoting growth of hair cells (7) (see main article below, for more detail).

Choline is important for structure of cell membranes, as precursor for acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter), and for proper liver function. It is well established that a diet deficient in choline results in fat accumulation of fat (triglycerides) in the liver, a condition known as “fatty liver.” It is also a methyl-donor involved in many physiological processes, including normal metabolism and transport of lipids, methylation reactions, and neurotransmitter synthesis. Deficiency of choline can result in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It is also very important for cognitive function; deficiencies, in later life, can result in cognitive decline in older people. (6)

Choline and Inositol

The following summary is from WiseGeek (7); unfortunately that site does not provide its references. I have changed the formatting from that in the original article.

Both these substances are important nutrients for brain development.

      • Inositol has a calming effect on the central nervous system and is used to treat depression, anxiety attacks, and insomnia.
      • Choline affects the areas of the brain responsible for memory function and learning. Research shows that choline can improve memory and may help prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and age-related memory loss.

Both might prevent cancer:

  • Women with a high intake of choline have a lower resin of developing breast cancer. Several studies have found that women with a high intake of choline have a lower risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Phytic acid, the plant source of inositol, has anti-cancer properties. This could be why high-fiber, vegetable rich diets might ward off cancer.

Both play a role in heart health.

  • Consuming recommended amounts of choline can lower levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which is a marker of tissue damage and also a recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease. High intake of choline is also associated with reduced levels of chronic inflammation, which a key factor in heart disease.
  • Inositol reduces blood cholesterol and also helps to synthesize phospholipids, which help the body to utilize fat. Inositol helps to prevent oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is a key precursor of potentially lethal hardening of arteries.

Choline and the liver

One of the liver’s functions is to package up fatty acids (primarily made from excess glucose in the blood) into triglycerides and then into VLDL cholesterol particles for transport in the blood to fat tissue (adipose) for storage. A critical component of VLDL is phosphatidyl choline, which is made in the liver from choline. If there is a deficiency in choline (or its precursor, methionine), the fats remain in the liver as fatty liver deposits (4B), rather than being shipped out in VLDL particles or excreted via bile and digestive waste.

(Note: NAFLD or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease happens when fatty liver deposits are at a level harmful for the liver. Fatty liver disease caused by too much regular consumption of alcohol – alcoholism – is also harmful to the liver, but the cure involves giving up alcohol consumption and sufficient choline.)

Increased dietary protein, especially that containing methionine (a sulfur-containing amino acid predominantly from animal sources), and increased dietary choline can all protect against fatty liver and the resulting inflammatory damage to the liver that eventually leads to increased liver enzymes in the blood, similar to that caused by excess alcohol intake. (4C)

One thing is becoming clear to me: excess dietary fat and/or sugar and starch can lead to the production of triglycerides in the liver. If there is sufficient choline and methionine in the diet, those triglycerides are exported from the liver to the adipose tissue. If there is insufficient choline and methionine, the triglycerides remain in the liver and can lead to dangerous inflammation of the liver, if there is also excess dietary polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), especially Omega-6 PUFA such as that from corn and soy oils (4C).

So in addition to needing sufficient choline and methionine, we also need to minimize excess carbs and polyunsaturated oils such as corn, soy and canola if we want to minimize stored fat (both in adipose and in liver tissue). That is, unless the excess fatty acids are excreted with bile in the stool, rather than conversion to triglycerides.

Minimum daily requirement of choline

FDA recommendations (AI) for daily dietary choline are: 425 mg for women, and 550 mg for men.

But many believe these recommendations are too low. The tolerable upper limit of daily choline intake is 3500 mg. Amounts in excess of this can result in runny stool, low blood pressure, and fishy body odor. (Source “9” is lost).

According to Chris Masterjohn (4A), one of the reasons it is difficult to pin down the minimum daily requirement of choline is because that minimum depends on the dietary intake of certain other nutrients involved in the methylation cycle (part of the liver’s detox and protein synthesis  pathways); namely folate, B12, B6 and betaine intake.

As Chris so aptly points out (4A), the metabolism of choline (and choline’s role in liver metabolism) is very complex. Methionine, which can be made from choline via betaine for use in the methylation cycle, is also used by the liver to make choline. The critical enzyme here is PEMT (phosphatidylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase), The making of PEMT is controlled by a specific gene; “The presence of at least one defective copy of this gene is extremely prevalent in the population, and it dramatically raises our chances of developing fatty liver on a low-choline diet.” (4B)

Dietary sources of Choline and Inositol

Inositol is found in beans, peas, brown rice, beef brain and heart, raisins, unrefined molasses, grapefruit and other citrus fruits (7).

Dietary choline is very important, even though the body can make some toward meeting our daily requirements.  One of the most common dietary sources is eggs (especially the lecithin in the yolks), as pictured above, but is also abundant in nuts, organ meats, cauliflower, and many seeds including soy and sunflower (7). However, it’s important that the soy be sprouted to avoid toxic substances in the seed, and that the soy be non-GMO. See USDA article (2) for extensive list of choline-containing foods, and amounts; a much smaller version is provided in a chart, below.

Chart: Choline in foods

Note that the amounts of food listed are not necessarily a single serving. For example, it is highly unlikely that one would eat 3 cups of cooked brown rice in a single meal. (Chart from Wikipedia (1). See also the following for more detail/longer lists of foods:

  • USDA Database for Choline Content in Common Foods (2);
  • Chris Masterjohn’s Choline Database (new 4/17/19) (4D); includes instructions on how to use the database.

By far, the richest source of choline is organ meets (liver, heart, etc.). The most common supplemental form of choline is as a component of soy lecithin, but I prefer sunflower lecithin because sunflower seeds are not as toxic as soy, and have not yet been altered by GMO.

Notes about choline in whole milk and butter:

Whole milk: It is well known that raw, whole milk contains more choline than heat-treated milk such as pasteurized milk with 1% fat listed in chart above: 173 mg choline in 1 quart (equates to 43 mg in an 8-oz glass). But I’ve not been able to find out just how much more, primarily because our government frowns on the consumption of raw milk for “sanitary” reasons.

Pasteurized whole (3.25% fat) milk contains 14.2 mg per 100 gram (3.5 oz) serving (2); this is equivalent to 32 mg choline in 1 cup of whole pasteurized milk.

According to 1944 data from Pet Milk company (5), “fresh” milk provides 131-169 mg choline per liter of milk. This is equivalent to 31 – 40 mg choline per cup of fresh milk. (“Fresh” is the old term for “raw” milk).

Butter: Salted butter contains 18.8 mg choline per 100 grams (2), which equates to 5.3 mg choline per ounce or 2.7 mg choline per Tablespoon salted butter.


  1. Wikipedia on choline:
  2. USDA Database for Choline Content in Common Foods; Original link no longer valid. Try this pdf instead:
  3. WHFoods: choline:
  4. Chris Masterjohn:
    1. (4) on dietary choline:
    2. (5) on choline deficiency and fatty liver:
    3.  (6) on choline and fatty liver:
    4. Choline Database:
  5. (7) Choline in fresh milk (1944):

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