All women of childbearing age are advised to take folic acid. Why? Folic acid is known to reduce a baby’s risk of neural tube defects by as much as 70%. Neural tube defects are life-threatening malformations of the brain, spinal cord and spine. These and other congenital deformities such as cleft palates, cleft lips and heart defects can be prevented by taking the right amounts of folic acid in pregnancy.
How much do you need?
Because of its role in preventing many birth defects, doctors routinely stress the importance of folic acid in pregnancy. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking 400 micrograms of folic acid every single day. This should be done before conception and at least three months after giving birth.
Good sources of folate and folic acid in pregnancy
- 1 cup lentils – 358 mcg
- 1 cup pinto beans – 294 mcg
- 1 cup chickpeas – 282 mcg
- 1 cup spinach – 263 mcg
- 1 cup asparagus – 262 mcg
- 1 cup collard greens – 177 mcg
- 1 cup turnip greens – 170 mcg
- 1 papaya – 115 mcg
- 1 cup mustard greens – 103 mcg
- 1 8-inch whole wheat tortilla – 98 mcg
- ½ cup enriched whole wheat pasta – 92 mcg
- 1 cup avocado – 90 mcg
- ¼ cup peanuts – 88 mcg
- ¼ cup sunflower seeds – 82 mcg
- 1 cup lettuce – 76 mcg
- 1 orange – 40 mcg
- 1 grapefruit – 30 mcg
- 1 cup strawberries – 25 mcg
The amount of folate in food can be lost during storage and/or cooking. Eat as much raw and lightly cooked fruits and vegetables during pregnancy as you can. The USDA requires food manufacturers to enrich grain products such as cereal, bread and pasta with folic acid. Each serving should provide at least 20% of the recommended daily value. There are fortified breakfast cereals that contain as much as 100%. Chicken and beef liver are also good sources of folate; however, there are conflicting opinions about the safety of consuming liver during pregnancy.
Most doctors and many institutions, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend that all pregnant women and women of childbearing age take folic acid (in a multivitamin or folic acid supplement) every day.
Folic acid deficiency
Folic acid deficiency can be tricky to diagnose. Symptoms include headaches, diarrhea, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, weight loss, irritability, weakness, and a sore tongue. Those with only a minor deficiency may not have any symptoms. This is particularly dangerous because the mother is not experiencing the effects of the deficiency, but the baby isn’t getting the optimal amount for healthy embryonic development.