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Focus on the Future: Folic Acid

Focus on the Future:
Folic Acid

*DISCLAIMER* All information is provided for educational purposes only. No drugs or supplements should be taken without prior advice from your health professional.

What is folic acid?
Why do I need folic acid?
Why is folic acid essential if I'm a girl?
What are birth defects?
How much folic acid does my body need?
What foods are good sources of folic acid?
Can folic acid be harmful if I take too much?

Okay, we know that reading about vitamins isn't the most exciting thing in the world. But if you had to read about any one, folic acid is the one to choose because it's one of the most important vitamins you need if you're a girl. For all people, this B vitamin is necessary for good health. But for girls and women, when you're ready to have a family, folic acid is absolutely essential to prevent your baby from developing certain birth defects. It may seem like baby-making time is a long time away, but it's smart to start thinking about eating well now so that it's a habit later. So get your folic acid every day. And read on to find out how to get your daily dose of this important nutrient. back to top

What is folic acid?
Folic acid (also known as folate and folacin) is one of the B vitamins that is essential for good health. Folic acid is found naturally in a variety of foods, particularly leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale. In fact, that's how the vitamin got its name; the word "folic" comes from the Latin word "folium," which means leaf. back to top

Why do I need folic acid?
Everybody needs folic acid for good health. Your body needs it to make new cells, and the vitamin is particularly important in the creation of a human's genetic make-up, called DNA. Without folic acid, cells won't divide. No cell division means no production of new cells, so a folic acid deficiency means your body may not be able make enough hair, skin, and blood cells.

Because folic acid helps the body make new cells, including red blood cells, the vitamin is often used by doctors to prevent or treat anemia, or low blood count, an illness that can make you feel tired and sluggish all the time. Researchers also believe that folic acid may help to prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases. back to top

Why is folic acid essential if I'm a girl?
While folic acid is necessary for the health of people of all ages, the vitamin is especially important for females who are of the age to have children, which is generally defined as girls and women aged 15 to 45. Recent studies indicate that taking folic acid regularly before and during pregnancy may prevent specific birth defects known as neural tube defects.

Because half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it's even more important that young women get enough folic acid in their diets before they become pregnant. If you are sexually active, there is always a chance that you may become pregnant, even if you regularly use birth control. Also, most girls and women don't discover that they're pregnant until after the fetus is formed (usually only after they miss one or more periods). Since folic acid is needed the most during the first weeks of pregnancy, starting to take folic acid after the fetus is formed is often too late for you to ensure the health of your unborn child.

With this in mind, it's important to get enough folic acid in your diet every day from the time you hit age 15 onward! This way, your body will be certain to have enough folic acid in its system before you become pregnant. back to top

What are birth defects?
Birth defects are malformations, or flaws, present in a baby at birth. They are caused by a variety of factors, including genetic conditions passed on from the child's parents and exposure of the fetus to toxic chemicals such as alcohol and nicotine.

Birth defects that occur in the brain and spinal cord are known as neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is the structure in the fetus that grows to become the brain and spinal cord. During the first few weeks of pregnancy, a flat section of cells begins to fold and form the neural tube of the fetus; if this tube does not close completely, the baby is born with an NTD. The most common NTDs are spina bifida, which causes paralysis in the lower body, and anencephaly, which results in a severely undeveloped brain and skull. About 2,500 babies are born with NTDs each year.

Experts believe that up to 75% of NTDs could be prevented if girls and women got enough folic acid both before they became pregnant and during the early stages of pregnancy. Yet the average amount of folic acid eaten by American girls and women is less than half of the suggested daily requirement. back to top

How much folic acid does my body need?
For girls and women aged 15 to 45, the FDA recommends that you get 400 micrograms (mcg), or 0.4 milligrams of folic acid per day. For pregnant women, the FDA recommends a daily intake of 800 mcg.

It's pretty easy to figure out how much folic acid you're getting every day. If you buy prepared foods at the grocery store, check the Nutrition Facts label on the package to find out the amount of folic acid contained. For example, a food label that says a product is "high in folate or folic acid" means that a single serving provides at least 20% of the FDA's Recommended Daily Value (or 80 mcg); a food label claiming the product is a "good source" of folic acid must contain 10% to 19% of the daily value in a single serving.

Be sure to read the labels carefully when checking for folic acid amounts so that you will know the correct amount of the vitamin contained in each serving size.

If you'd like to know how much folic acid is in the burrito or cereal or spinach you eat, check out the Food and Drug Administration's chart that lists serving sizes and the amount of folic acid in each serving. You can find it at back to top

What foods are good sources of folic acid?
Folic acid is found naturally in many fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Citrus fruits are particularly high in the vitamin, so orange juice is a smart choice for your breakfast beverage: just one cup (8 oz.) of OJ from concentrate contains 109 mcg of folic acid. That's over one-fourth of your body's daily requirement in a single glass!

Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce, are also naturally high in folic acid. One cup of raw spinach contains a whopping 108 mcg of folic acid, or about 27% of your body's daily requirement. Mixing up a spinach salad for lunch or dinner is an excellent and tasty way to get folic acid at mealtimes.

Legumes, or beans, are another great source of folic acid. Lentils lead the way, with 180 mcg in half a cup—that's almost 50% of the folic acid your body needs daily! Black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), and even peanuts are all great sources of folic acid. Other vegetables, such as asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and peas, are also significant sources of this vitamin. Try stirring up a healthy bean or veggie dish from our recipes page and you're well on your way to getting your daily dose of folic acid!

In addition to these fruits and veggies, folic acid is also found in a variety of enriched and fortified foods. If a food is enriched, it means that a vitamin or mineral that is naturally found in a food is added back to the finished product after it has been lost during the processing stage. If a food is fortified, however, this means that nutrients that were not originally present are added to the finished product.

Since 1998, the federal government has required grain products, such as bread, cereal, and pasta, to be fortified with folic acid. This means that folic acid is now found in higher amounts, and in a wider variety of foods, than it was a decade ago. In fact, a few fortified breakfast cereals contain the full daily dose of the vitamin in one bowl; a 3/4-cup single serving of Total, for example, packs an amazing 400 mcg of folic acid. As far as folic acid is concerned, then, breakfast truly can be the most important meal of the day. back to top

Can folic acid be harmful if I take too much?
In general, getting too much folic acid doesn't cause serious side effects. However, the FDA recommends that girls and women should not take more than 1,000 micrograms (mcg), or 1 milligram, of folic acid each day.

However, researchers say that regular use of birth control pills, tobacco, and alcohol make folic acid deficiency more likely. If you use any of these substances, your body may need higher amounts of the vitamin. Talk to your doctor about your habits, and he or she will be able to recommend the daily dose of folic acid that is right for you. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001