Written by Jessica Marie, RD, reviewed by Michelle Dudash, RD.
What is folic acid?
Folic acid, or folate, is a B-vitamin found in certain fruits, vegetables, and grain foods. Folate is especially important before and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of serious birth defects that affect the brain and spinal cord. Two major neural tube defects (NTDs) are spina bifida and anencephaly. Babies with spina bifida have a defect in their spinal column causing them to have varying degrees of handicap. Babies with anencephaly never develop a brain and do not survive.
The CDC estimates that up to 70% NTDs could be prevented by folic acid. Additionally research has found that adequate intake of folic acid may also prevent cleft lip palate, preeclampsia, premature birth, low birth weight, and miscarriage.
How much folic acid do I need?
NTDs occur during the early weeks of pregnancy, often before you even know you’re pregnant. For this reason, the government recommends that all women of child-bearing age consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid per day before and during pregnancy. Many OBs, however, recommend up to 1,000 micrograms of folic acid per day during pregnancy.
Here are some good sources of folate and folic acid:
1/2 cup black-eyed peas: 105 mcg
3/4 cup breakfast cereals, fortified with folic acid: 100 mcg
1/2 cup spinach, frozen, cooked, boiled: 100 mcg
1/2 cup enriched white rice: 65 mcg
1/2 cup orange juice: 140 mcg
Additional tips for getting more folic acid:
- Eat whole grain and enriched grain foods, since food manufacturers are required by the FDA to add folic acid to these products.
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Folate is found naturally in plant foods like dark green leafy vegetables, asparagus, oranges, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
- Eat beans, peas, and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans.
- Take a pre-natal vitamin or other supplement containing folic acid every day. Make sure it contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid.
What other factors may cause NTDs besides improper nutrition?
Other factors can contribute to NTDs such as genetics, some anti-seizure medications, maternal diabetes, obesity during pregnancy, going into a very hot Jacuzzi during the early weeks of pregnancy, and having previously had a child with a NTD. Some of these factors cannot be avoided by the mother but diet is one that is easily controlled. Simply taking care of yourself by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grain and enriched wheat foods, and taking a folic acid supplement or a pre-natal vitamin can make a huge impact on the outcome of your pregnancy.