Folic acid, a B vitamin, is important for cell development and repair. It also helps to form and mature red and white blood cells. A varied diet that includes whole grains and cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables will provide enough folic acid for the average person.
Folic acid can also reduce the amount of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine may be a risk factor for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends getting folate from food rather than supplements to help prevent heart disease. Also, in one study, women who took a multivitamin with folic acid were found to have a reduced risk of colon cancer.
Taking folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy can help prevent certain birth defects known as neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, problems with spinal development, and anencephaly, in which most or all of the brain does not develop.
Since the neural tube develops in the baby very early in pregnancy, within the first few weeks, it is important for women to take folic acid before they become pregnant. Waiting until a positive pregnancy test can be too late. It is optimal to take folic acid for six months before becoming pregnant, and then throughout the pregnancy. Any prenatal vitamin will have an appropriate dose.
The Daily Recommended Intake for folic acid is 400 micrograms per day for teenagers, men and women. Women who are pregnant or who are thinking of becoming pregnant should get 600 micrograms per day, and those who are breastfeeding need 500 per day. Older people and those who drink alcohol also need more.
The tolerable upper intake level is 1,000 micrograms per day. Taking too much folic acid can prevent a vitamin B12 deficiency from being diagnosed.
Food Sources of Folate
Here are 10 of the top food sources of folate. Fortified breads, pastas and breakfast cereals are also sources, as are orange and tomato juices, papayas, bananas and cantaloupe.
- Beef liver, 3 ounces, 185 micrograms
- Black eyed peas, ½ cup, 105 micrograms
- Spinach, ½ cup, 100 micrograms
- Great Northern beans, ½ cup, 90 micrograms
- Asparagus, 4 spears, 80 micrograms
- Baked beans, 1 cup, 60 micrograms
- Peas, ½ cup, 50 micrograms
- Broccoli, ½ cup, 50 micrograms
- Avocado, ½ cup, 45 micrograms
- Peanuts, ½ cup, 40 micrograms
It is quite easy for the average person to get enough folic acid in her diet. Simply focus on eating a variety of healthy foods each day and consider adding a basic multivitamin and you’ll be covered. However, women who are considering having a baby need considerably more folic acid, and it is critical that they take supplements well before becoming pregnant to prevent birth defects.