The Choline Connection

Professor highlights what it is and why we need it

Monday, May 8, 2017
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Students eating in one of UNH's dining halls

Choline is an important nutrient that can be found in many foods — including options that are readily available on campus.

When Reader’s Digest magazine decided to offer its subscribers a closer look at a nutrient that’s a bit of an unknown to many people, a UNH faculty member helped tell the story.

UNH's Kevin Pietro
Kevin Pietro File photo

That report on choline, which features insights from Kevin Pietro, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Biomedical Sciences, ran in a recent edition of the magazine.

“Choline is a vitamin-like nutrient that allows our cells to function and communicate efficiently,” Pietro explains. “While humans have the ability to manufacture small amounts, choline is still considered an essential nutrient, requiring daily consumption.”

Pietro, who teaches courses on topics including nutrition in exercise and sports, became interested in choline while teaching his courses on medical nutrition therapy and nutrition and metabolism.

“Choline plays an incredibly important role in assisting in the proper metabolism of dietary fat and cholesterol,” Pietro explains. “Often times a deficiency would be identified with the help of liver enzymes found in the blood, which would be abnormally elevated.  Of course, other medical issues could also elevated these enzymes, which would need to be ruled out first before a deficiency could be uncovered.”

What would he like his students to know about choline? “Where choline is found in food, I would hope to convince my students that a choline supplement is not needed, except in rare cases,” he says.

While it is not included on nutrition labels, choline, he explains, is available from the foods many of us eat each day — ones that are readily available in UNH’s dining halls.

“Luckily, choline is found in both plant and animal food sources,” Pietro says, noting that while animal food sources such as eggs, poultry, fish, beef and liver tend to have the highest concentrations, “peanuts, wheat germ and many of the cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts can also serve as reliable sources.”

And if we’re not getting enough of this nutrient?

“One of the most well-documented and researched deficiencies associated with insufficient choline intake is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is the buildup of fat and cholesterol in the liver,” Pietro says. Without enough choline, he explains, that buildup “could become progressively worse, potentially leading to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which indicates significant inflammation and liver cell damage. This also increases one’s risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer.”

We need choline for other things, too.

“Choline is also present in cell membranes all over our body, which helps maintain the integrity of those cells, allowing them to function properly,” Pietro says. “Additionally, choline assists in the communication between cells in multiple ways. For this reason, recent research has focused on choline, cognition and certain neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.”

Find out more about what is happening at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Biomedical Sciences.

Photographer: 
Jeremy Gasowski | Communications and Public Affairs | jeremy.gasowski@unh.edu | 603-862-4465