Touted as a treatment for dementia and Alzheimer's, lecithin is often taken in supplement form. But if you're trying to increase your intake of the nonessential fat without the use of supplements, you may be searching for foods with lecithin.
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What Is Lecithin?
Lecithin is a type of fat known as a phospholipid, which is a fat that plays a structural and metabolic role in the body. It supports the production of vital chemicals and assists in moving fat around to support the metabolic process.
Lecithin is also source of choline, which is an essential nutrient your body needs to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Neurotransmitters serve as chemical messengers between the neurons (nerve cells) throughout your body, bouncing messages from one neuron to the next.
Acetylcholine is primarily found in your peripheral nervous system — the nerves that extend out from your spinal cord and brain to the rest of your body — and plays a vital role in helping you move your muscles.
Acetylcholine is also found in your brain, where it helps control mood and maintain memory. According to the University of Queensland Australia, damage to the nerves that release acetylcholine, referred to as the cholinergic nerves, may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Lecithin also contains fatty acids, including saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Despite its many uses in your body, lecithin isn't an essential nutrient. Your body is able to manufacture all the lecithin it needs to perform these vital functions.
Choline is found in numerous types of foods, from meats to vegetables to nuts to fruits, not just those rich in lecithin. Some of the best sources include beef, eggs, yogurt, wheat germ and soybeans. Choline deficiencies in the United States are rare, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, and adults need between 425 to 560 milligrams a day.
Read more: Side Effects of Choline and Inositol
Foods With Lecithin
Given its vital role in brain and nerve health, especially its association with Alzheimer's disease, you may be searching for the richest source of lecithin to include in your diet to ensure you get enough of this fat. Lucky for you, lecithin is found in many types of foods, including animal and plant foods.
Some of the foods with lecithin include:
- Egg yolks
- Whole grains
- Wheat germ
Organ meats, including brain, liver and kidney, are also some of the richest sources of lecithin.
Lecithin is also an emulsifier, which means it has the ability to combine two ingredients that don't normally mix well together, such as oil and water. Due to its emulsifying capabilities, lecithin is used as a food additive in many different foods, including salad dressings, frozen desserts and baked goods. In addition to helping mix fat and water, lecithin also reduces the likelihood of rancidity.
What About Lecithin Supplements?
Not only is lecithin found in many common foods, but it's also available as a dietary supplement. You can find lecithin in a variety of forms, including granules, capsules and oil, at your local vitamin shop.
According to the USDA FoodData Central, 2 tablespoons of natural soya lecithin granules contain:
- 80 calories
- 8 grams of total fat
- 2 grams of monounsaturated fat
- 4 grams of polyunsaturated fat
- 230 milligrams of phosphorus
- 3,250 milligrams of choline
This natural supplement also contains natural fruit flavors (coconut and pineapple), as well as tricalcium phosphate. The amounts of vitamins E and K are not available for the lecithin granules.
By comparison, 2 tablespoons of soy lecithin oil contains:
- 208 calories
- 27 grams of total fat
- 4 grams of saturated fat
- 3 grams of monounsaturated fat
- 12 grams of saturated fat
- 95 milligrams of choline
- 2.2 milligrams of vitamin E
- 50 micrograms of vitamin K
The soy lecithin oil doesn't contain any other added ingredients.
Before adding lecithin supplements to your daily routine, talk to your health care provider first to discuss benefits, risks and need.
Purported Benefits of Lecithin
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), lecithin is used as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease, dementia and gallbladder disease, as well as for the prevention of fatty liver. But the evidence to support these benefits is limited.
As for Alzheimer's disease and dementia, according to the Linus Pauling Institute, randomized controlled trials that tested high doses of lecithin for the treatment of these neurodegenerative conditions have shown no positive effects. Therefore, supplementing or increasing your intake of foods rich in lecithin may not improve brain function for those suffering from Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
According to an older September 2009 review published in Alternative Medicine Review, the evidence to support the use of lecithin to reduce your risk of developing gallstones or treating the gallstones you already have is very weak. Instead, the author of the review recommends you work hard at getting to or maintaining a healthy weight and eat a healthy diet filled with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all the food groups.
As a source of choline, lecithin may help protect you from the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition in which your liver accumulates fat and increases your risk of inflammation and cirrhosis. Choline, especially in the form of phosphatidylcholine or lecithin, helps remove fat from your liver, thereby preventing the buildup, according to a January 2016 review published in Advances in Nutrition.
Although not mentioned as a benefit by URMC, lecithin may help women going through menopause feel more energized, according to a January 2018 study published in the Nutrition Journal. During this study, 96 women between the ages of 40 and 60 with complaints of fatigue were randomly given 600 milligrams of lecithin, 1,200 milligrams of lecithin or a placebo for eight weeks.
While the researchers noted no significant differences between each group with regards to fatigue, the women who received 1,200 milligrams of lecithin reported an improvement in vigor (feeling stronger, healthier and more energized). The high-dose group were also noted to have an improvement in blood pressure.
Lecithin Is Not Lectin
At quick glance, lecithin and lectin may seem to be the same word, but they are two entirely different nutrients. While lecithin is a fat, lectin is a type of protein sometimes referred to as an anti-nutrient. Lectin is found in many foods, including beans, nuts and grains, with raw beans and raw whole grains containing the highest amounts.
Your digestive system has a hard time breaking down active lectins, and eating them may cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, belly pain or diarrhea. They may also inhibit absorption of minerals.
According to Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, lectins have been villainized and blamed for many health issues that plague Western cultures, including chronic inflammation, obesity and autoimmune diseases. But it's highly unlikely that you're consuming an abundance of active lectins, and certainly not enough to cause chronic illness. Cooking, or even soaking, your beans or grains inactivates the lectin.
Read more: List of Foods That Contain Lectins
Additionally, lectins act as an antioxidant, protecting your cells against free radical damage. The nutrient also slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and reduces spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. However, if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or have food sensitivities, you may have difficulty digesting lectins, even when they're inactive.
Is This an Emergency?
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Lecithin"
- University of Queensland Australia: "What Are Neurotransmitters?"
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Choline"
- Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Lecithin"
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Chemical Cuisine: Lecithin"
- FoodData Central: "Natural Soya Lecithin Granules"
- MyFoodData: "Soy Lecithin Oil"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Alzheimer's Disease"
- Alternative Medicine Review: "Nutritional Approaches to Prevention and Treatment of Gallstones"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Choline, Its Potential Role in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, and the Case for Human and Bacterial Genes"
- Nutrition Journal: "Effect of Soy Lecithin on Fatigue and Menopausal Symptoms in Middle-Aged Women: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Lectins"