Dear Doctor: I've been eating a vegan diet for about a year. My mom says she read that vegans don't get enough choline, and that's dangerous. Is this true? What is choline, and where does it come from?

Dear Reader: Choline is an essential nutrient that is abundantly available in animal-based products such as eggs, dairy products, beef, chicken and fish, and in somewhat smaller concentrations in vegetables, legumes and grains. It's the source of chemical compounds known as methyl groups, which circulate in the body and play a role in the proper functioning of numerous metabolic processes in the brain and nervous system, including mood, memory and muscle control.

Choline is vital to the proper structure and performance of cell membranes, including those in the brain, and it is important in gene expression. It has been linked to lower levels of chronic inflammation, and offers protective properties in certain types of heart disease. It's also important in early development.

Although choline is produced by the liver, the quantities are not adequate for the body's daily needs. That's what makes it an "essential nutrient." There is no recommended daily allowance for choline. Instead, a guideline known as Adequate Intake, or AI, has been established. For adults, the AI is 425 milligrams per day for women and 550 milligrams per day for men. For children, the number ranges from 125 milligrams per day for infants to 375 milligrams per day for young teens. Because choline is so important to development, women who are pregnant or nursing need more of the nutrient.

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According to the National Institutes of Health, most people in the United States, whether vegans, vegetarians or omnivores, fall short on consumption of the nutrient. And while it's true that animal-based foods have the highest levels of choline, plant-based sources are also widely available. Certain vegetables, beans and grains are good sources of choline. For example, one-half cup of roasted soybeans has almost as much choline as 3 ounces of lean beef. One-half cup of broccoli has only slightly less choline than 1 cup of low-fat milk. A cup of cauliflower has as much choline as 3 ounces of grilled chicken.

If your personal preferences steer you away from choline-rich foods, you can consider making up the shortfall with supplements. Just be sure to stick to the dietary guidelines and not to go overboard. Too much choline can result in nausea and vomiting, excess sweating and salivation, low blood pressure and liver problems.

The bottom line here, as always when we're talking about health and nutrition, is to avoid the empty calories in the snack food aisle and the fast food drive-through, and focus instead on eating and cooking from a wide range of whole foods. Your body -- and, we suspect, your mother -- will thank you.

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Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu.

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