Interview with Dr. Zeisel, “The Choline Guy”

Today, I had the privilege of interviewing Steven Zeisel, a prominent choline researcher here at UNC! As I might’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a research paper about eggs, which are a great source of choline, so I wanted to learn more about this essential nutrient. Dr. Zeisel’s office is in the Michael Hooker Research Center at the School of Public Health, and let me tell you: that building is incredible. I think I even like it better than the FedEx Global Education Center, and you know how much I love that building! (Oh, you don’t? Right, this is only my third blog post. Well, I love that building a lot.) Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s one from the website:


Props to the architect of this atrium!

Don’t you just want to study there all day? Or work there? Or plop a tiny house down in the middle of the atrium and live there?

The building wasn’t just pretty, either. It seemed pretty high-tech and was actually somewhat intimidating. I arrived at the building with a couple minutes to spare, went up to the second floor, and was stopped in my tracks by a threatening looking yellow sign that said something along the lines of “This hallway is too important and high-tech for you, young freshman! Open this door, and an alarm will sound, and everybody in this building will judge you!” There was another sign clearly indicating that Dr. Zeisel’s office was down that hallway, and I really didn’t want to be late for my interview, but I was too scared to open the door, so I just stood there awkwardly. I guess I was hoping the door would relent and magically open for me. Luckily, a woman who turned out to be Dr. Zeisel’s assistant eventually came down the hall and let me in.

The hallway was filled with lab rooms, locked vaults with danger signs, biohazard warnings, and other research paraphernalia. Call me naïve, but I got a little burst of excitement walking through there. I mean, it’s common knowledge that UNC is a “research university,” and there are lots of “research” opportunities here and the senior professors are “researching” on the cutting-edge. But just living in a dorm and going to class day to day, I don’t see that side of UNC, and I don’t think other undergrads do either. But seeing that hallway where “research” is clearly happening made it real.


Anyways, back to the intent of this post: the interview! Here are some of the high points:

  • Choline was only recognized as an essential nutrient in 1998, which is probably why it isn’t addressed in the Dietary Guidelines. (I, personally, do not buy this excuse. The last Dietary Guidelines was published at the very beginning of 2011. They had PLENTY of time to add in a paragraph about choline. I digress.)
  • According to data from the 2009 NHANES, only about 5-10% of people in most age groups reach the recommended intake of choline. However, Dr. Zeisel was careful to note that the recommended intake for choline is just a ‘best guess.’ Therefore, not meeting that level does not necessarily mean one is deficient in choline.
  • Based on autopsy data, an estimated 25% of people have fatty liver. It’s hard to know how many of these cases are caused by choline deficiency, but it’s likely that a good percentage could be cured or improved with higher choline intake.
  • Men and postmenopausal women HAVE to eat choline. If they don’t, they develop liver and muscle damage.
  • Some premenopausal women (about 55% of premenopausal women in NC) can make small amounts of choline in their livers. Thus, they do not experience liver and muscle damage in studies when fed a low-choline diet. However, this amount of choline is not enough to sustain them and a fetus through pregnancy and lactation, so it’s still important for these women to get dietary sources of choline.
  • A study in mice suggests that gut bacteria can take choline and convert it to a compound that may increase atherosclerosis. Weirdly, the compound also makes people smell like fish! Choline from food is in a form that bacteria typically don’t have access to, so it’s much better to get your choline from whole food sources rather than pills.

We talked about a lot of other stuff too, but those were the points I found most interesting. Especially that last part! I guess it just goes to show that even something good and necessary (choline) can cause serious damage when removed from its whole-food context. Dr. Zeisel did say that the research is only in its early stages, though, so we can’t jump to any conclusions. I guess the takeaway is that if you start to smell like fish, you should reconsider the choline pills you’ve been downing after every meal.


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