Folic Acid for Women’s Health

In honor of National Women’s History Month, I came up with my quick and dirty guide to the top 5 nutrients women should pay special attention to.

Here’s #4:

Folic Acid

You’ve probably heard the terms folate and folic acid many times. What’s the difference? Folate (vitamin B9) occurs naturally in food. Folic acid is the synthetic form. We all need folate for proper brain and neurological function, but it is critically important for women of child-bearing age as it plays a vital role in the healthy development of the growing fetus. When I was at the University of Florida, working on my undergrad in human nutrition (I won’t write how many years ago, because that numbers just keeps to be getting bigger and bigger…ha!), one of my nutrition professors was actually at the leading edge of the research into folic acid’s role in spina bifida. I got to spend a lot of time in her lab and it was fascinating! But I will fully admit that at the time, the thought of pregnancy and parenthood were so far away, that I didn’t pay much attention to it personally. But adequate folic acid intake before pregnancy is what matters most.

Why can’t you just wait until you’re pregnant to worry about increasing your folic acid intake? Because the birth defects affected by inadequate folic acid (anencephaly and spina bifida) happen during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a women even knows she’s pregnant. So it’s a good idea to start paying attention to your intake way before you have babies on the brain!

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to meet all of your daily folic acid needs. All women, but especially those planning on pregnancy, need 400mg daily. If you’re not eating a balanced diet or are planning a pregnancy, take a multivitamin with folic acid. Most contain the full 400mg. Many foods are now fortified with folic acid, and often one serving of a particular food item (such as fortified cereal) will meet your daily need. Other good sources are beans, peas and lentils, oranges and orange juice, asparagus and broccoli, and dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, and mustard greens.

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