Why folic acid is crucial in pregnancy
Folic acid is a water-soluble B-complex vitamin and is found in most prenatal vitamins. It is very important for women who are trying to conceive or who are pregnant to consume folic acid in order to prevent abnormalities in an unborn baby.
The risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida (when the spinal column doesn't close) and anencephaly (when the neural tube doesn't close, leaving incomplete brain and spinal cord development) can be reduced by well over 50 percent when a woman consumes the proper amount of folic acid prior to conception and early in the first trimester. However, the benefits don't end there: The risk of other birth defects such as cleft lip, cleft palate and certain heart defects, including congenital heart disease, can also be reduced with the required amount of folic acid.
How Much Folic Acid is Enough?
Experts recommend that women of childbearing age get 200-400 micrograms of folic acid a day (since many pregnancies are unplanned) and no less than 400 micrograms starting at least one month prior to and continuing during pregnancy. On the other hand, you shouldn't take more than 1,000 micrograms (or 1 milligram) of folic acid without your doctor or midwife's permission.
If you've previously given birth to a child with neural tube defects, your doctor or midwife may recommend that you take a much larger dose of folic acid (sometimes as much as 4,000 micrograms or 4 milligrams) daily at least one month before a subsequent pregnancy.
Folic acid supplements are an easy way to be sure you're getting enough folic acid, especially if you're a strict vegetarian. Most prenatal vitamins contain an adequate amount, but check the label to be on the safe side. Your vitamins should contain 400 micrograms (400 mcg) or 100 percent of the daily value (100% DV) of folic acid.
Foods with a High Amount of Folic Acid
Folic acid is vital to the development of your baby's central nervous system. Your body cannot store folic acid, so eat plenty of foods every day that contain this nutrient. Raw vegetables are best, but if you must cook them, lightly steam rather than boil them.
Some pre-packaged breakfast cereals and breads have been fortified with folic acid due to new requirements by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Other foods that contain added folic acid include many grain products such as flour, rice, pasta and cornmeal. The labels should say the product contains 100 percent of the daily value of folic acid.
While it's good to choose packaged foods that offer more nutrients than other processed products, fresh is always best when it comes to nutrition. Folic acid can be found in many fruits and vegetables, including oranges and orange juice, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, papaya, grapefruit, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, spinach, iceberg and romaine lettuce, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, raw celery, cabbage, winter squash, peas and corn. Other sources of folic acid include kidney beans, lentils, tofu, peanuts and peanut butter.