Before pregnancy, folate wasn’t a top priority — and for many, that’s often the case. Folate tends to fly under the radar up until pregnancy. It’s only then that healthcare practitioners emphasize the importance of folate (and its cousin, folic acid). After all, folate and folic acid support a growing baby’s brain and spinal cord. More on that, below. At any rate, folate is essential. Beyond its necessity for pregnancy, we need folate on a daily basis. So, let’s take a closer look at folate, what it is, why we need it, and the foods that are high in folate so we can get more of it.
What is folate and why do you need it?
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 which is found in food. A water-soluble vitamin, it has many important functions in the body. In particular, it supports proper fetal growth, reduces the risk of birth defects, and aids in healthy red blood cell division. Folate helps form DNA, RNA, and is involved in protein metabolism. It plays a key role in breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that can be harmful in disproportionate amounts. In essence, your body needs folate in order to make DNA and other genetic material.
Where can you get folate?
Folate, aka vitamin B9, is naturally found in many foods — both plant-based and animal-derived. For example, folate is present in dark, leafy green vegetables, legumes, beans, and nuts. Fruits rich in folate include oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries. A type of folate is also found in the form of man-made foods, like cereals, pastas, and supplements. This is where folic acid comes into play.
How much folate do you need?
The amount of folate you need depends on your age. It also depends on whether or not you’re trying to conceive (or are pregnant). If you’re over 19 years old, you should aim for 400 mcg DFE. However, pregnant and lactating women require 600 mcg DFE and 500 mcg DFE, respectively. Additionally, those who regularly drink alcohol should aim for at least 600 mcg DFE of folate. Their needs are slightly higher as alcohol can impair folate’s absorption. As always, consult with your physician about your body’s needs.
For a bit of context, the Recommended Dietary Allowance for folate is listed as micrograms of Dietary Folate Equivalents (DFE). And folate equivalents refers to both folate and folic acid. In essence, the measure of mcg DFE is used because your body absorbs more folic acid from fortified foods and dietary supplements than folate found naturally in foods. In comparison to folate, you actually need less folic acid to get your recommended amount. To put that into perspective, 400 mcg of folate and 240 mcg of folic acid are both equal to 400 mcg DFE.
Signs of folate deficiency.
Folate deficiency is often called “folate deficiency anemia (or folic acid deficiency),” and it’s caused by a lack of dietary folate. It means you have lower-than-normal amounts of folic acid, a type of B vitamin, in your blood. How does it happen?
A few ways — if you have an unbalanced and unhealthy diet, regularly misuse alcohol, and/or follow a fad diet that does not involve eating good sources of folate. Luckily, it is treatable by a medical professional and typically resolves itself within one month. The symptoms of folate deficiency are often subtle, but they include:
- Tongue swelling
- Mouth sores
- Premature gray hair
- Growth issues
Health effects of low folate:
Although studies are still undergoing, current research shows that low levels of folate can cause the following:
- Neural tube defects — taking folic acid (and consuming folate) before becoming pregnant and during early pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects in babies. Neural tube defects are major birth defects in a baby’s brain or spine.
- Cancer — folate that is naturally present in food may decrease the risk of several forms of cancer. But folate supplements might have different effects on cancer risk depending on how much the person takes and when. More research is needed to understand the roles of dietary folate and folic acid supplements in cancer risk.
- Depression — people with low blood levels of folate might be more likely to have depression. In addition, they might not respond as well to antidepressant treatment as people with normal folate levels. Folate supplements, particularly those that contain methylfolate (5-methyl-THF), might make antidepressant medications more effective. However, more research is needed to better understand the role of folate in depression.
- Heart disease and stroke — folic acid supplements lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that’s linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Supplements don’t directly decrease the risk of heart disease, but some studies have shown that a combination of folic acid with other B-vitamins, however, helps prevent stroke.
- Preterm birth — taking folic acid might reduce the risk of having a premature baby or a baby with birth defects, such as certain types of heart problems. But more research is needed to understand how folic acid affects the risk of these conditions.
Folate for a healthy pregnancy.
As mentioned, folate and folic acid are important for pregnancy because they can help prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida. Furthermore, folate prevents certain heart abnormalities, cleft palate and cleft lip. It also lowers the risk of developing anemia, miscarriage, preterm delivery, and low birth weight. Folate is available in multivitamins and prenatal vitamins, an important part of pre-conception and the entirety of pregnancy. In fact, folate is essential for breastfeeding moms too.
In dietary supplements, folate is usually in the form of folic acid, but methylfolate (5-methyl-THF) is also used. Dietary supplements containing methylfolate might be better than folic acid for individuals who have a certain mutation in a gene called MTHFR. With that particular gene mutation, bodies can use this methylfolate more easily than folic acid. If you are trying to get pregnant, consider getting your genes tested to determine if you have the MTHFR genetic variation. This will give you the power to make informed choices about your unique nutritional needs, including whether or not you should choose prenatal and fertility supplements that contain the active, methylfolate form of folic acid.
Folate vs. folic acid — what’s the difference?
Often used interchangeably, folate and folic acid are two different compounds. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Available as a nutritional supplement, folic acid is the lab-made form of folate (vitamin B9). As mentioned, both folate and folic acid are necessary for making and maintaining healthy cells in the body. Some prenatal vitamins contain folate and most contain folic acid. At any rate, they’re an essential component of prenatal vitamins.
In terms of which is better, typically dietary folate is a safer option than folic acid. After all, excessive unmetabolized folic acid can cause several health issues. Nonetheless, if your doctor has prescribed folic acid for certain health conditions, that’s likely because your body may not be met by dietary folate alone.
15 foods high in folate:
If you’re eating a wide variety of plant and/or animal-based foods, you’re likely getting enough folate. Folate is naturally present in many ingredients, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas, seafood, eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and grains. Spinach, liver, and asparagus, are among the foods with the highest folate levels.
Back in 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to add 140 mcg folic acid/100 g to enriched breads, cereals, flours, pastas, rice, and other grain products. This was, in part, to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Because cereals and grains are widely consumed in America, these products have become important contributors of folic acid to the American diet.
Beyond processed foods, these are 15 whole foods high in folate:
- Brussels sprouts
- Wheat germ
Best recipes with folate:
One thing you shouldn’t lack are your vitamins, especially your B’s. They are important for making sure the body’s cells are functioning properly. They help the body convert food into energy (metabolism), create new blood cells, and maintain healthy skin cells, brain cells, and other body tissues. Hope these tasty recipes will get you to intake folate more, let us know in the comments what’s your favorite vitamin B recipe to make and enjoy.