Choline: Remain Calm, Very Calm

Health Writer

Oh,  no, here we go again: Another news report that could trigger flight from a category of foods  due to alleged link to disease.

The nutrient: Choline
The claim: Raises colon cancer risk
The advice: Remain calm, very calm

Bottom line first

There may be an association between consuming foods  high in choline--red meat, poultry, and dairy products--and an increased risk  of certain colon polyps, which can  turn into cancer. But the study  is preliminary, limited, and full of caveats. The researchers themselves warn people not to change their diets based on this study.

This study in 60 words or less
About 40,000 subjects in a long-running women's health study completed  food questionnaires every two to four years for  almost 20 years. Researchers calculated the amount of choline consumed and compared that to  incidence of one type of colon polyp. The risk was  45 percent higher for those who consumed the most choline compared to those who consumed the least.

Yes, but. . .
Have a seat, this might take a while.

As usual with this kind of study, it can at  best establish a link, not  cause and effect. A study that kept people on diets high in choline for many years  and looked at colon cancer incidence would be necessary to prove choline causes cancer.

The subjects in the study were all women. Nobody knows if the findings will apply to men, though a study on men is underway.

Micronutrients common in some foods high  in choline--some red meats,  poultry and dairy products--are suspected to have links to some cancers.

Diets high in fruits, vegetables and fiber are linked to lower risk of colon cancer. Choline-rich diets may be lower in these protective nutrients.

High choline consumption could be a marker for other less healthy behaviors linked to cancers.

The kind of polyps studied, colorectal adenomas,  are present in about 40 percent of adults over 50. Only 5 percent of those polyps turn into cancer.

So what are you going to do about it?
Nothing. Follow dietary best practices--lots of fruit and vegetables, plenty of whole-grain foods, and modest portions of fish, lower-fat meat, poultry and dairy--to maximize your health. Balance calories in and calories out to prevent weight gain.

Choline supplements are sold and touted for a wide range of conditions. If you're taking them without medical guidance, talk to your doctor.

Learn more
Check out our nutrition resources, and read the blog of our nutrition expert, registered dietitian Heather Reese.

For more information on colon cancer, check out our Colon Cancer Health Center.