How do I know if I'm getting enough folic acid in my diet?
The expert answers:
Folate (or folic acid) is a B-vitamin that functions in the synthesis of DNA for new cells. Cells that are rapidly dividing, such as in an unborn baby, require folate. Because new red blood cells are forming for both mother and unborn baby, a woman who is deficient in folate is at risk for megaloblastic anemia.
In addition, folate is critically important in developing fetuses for proper neural tube development. Folate deficiency may lead to neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida. Because the neural tube forms in a baby very early in pregnancy, an NTD can occur before a woman even suspects she is pregnant. It is critical that all women (ages 14 to 50 years) who are capable of conception obtain at least 400 micrograms folate every day.
When a woman is pregnant, her needs for folate increase to 600 micrograms per day. Most experts recommend that at least 200 of the 600 micrograms be obtained from food sources that provide naturally occurring folate, compared to the folic acid type of folate that is provided in fortified foods and supplements.
The needs for folate for moms-to-be may be met by a combined approach of natural dietary sources (see table below), fortified grains (fortified with folic acid), and vitamin supplements. As of 1998, all grain products (rice, flour, breads, pastas and cereals), are required to be fortified with folic acid. Because it is so critical to have sufficient levels of folate in Mom-to-be's diet during the time of neural tube development in the fetus, it is often recommended that a woman who is considering getting pregnant, begin taking a multivitamin supplement before conception -- especially if it is suspected that folate needs are not being met through diet alone.
Food and folate
Lentils, cooked, 1 cup, 358mcg
Spinach, cooked, 1 cup, 263mcg
Orange Juice, 1 cup, 109mcg*
Peas, cooked, 1 cup cooked, 101mcg
Ready-to-eat cereal, 1 cup 100-400mcg**
Pasta, cooked, 1/2 cup, 100-120mcg**
Oatmeal, Instant, cooked, 1/2 cup 80mcg**
Rice, cooked, 1/2 cup, 60mcg**
Spinach, raw, 1 cup, 58mcg
Bread, 1 slice, 40mcg**
Orange, 1 medium, 24mcg
* Orange juice made from frozen concentrate;
** Folate in fortified grains is in the form of folic acid.
To estimate whether you are meeting your needs for folate before or during pregnancy, there are a few things you can do. First, incorporate folate-rich foods into your diet. Second, read labels. Labels of fortified foods will list the content of folate in terms of a Percentage of Daily Value (or %DV). The Percentage of Daily Value tells you how the folate will contribute to your daily needs. When you add up the %DV for folate for all the foods and/or supplement within a day, it should add up to at least 100 percent to cover your needs for 400 micrograms per day. If you are pregnant, you will need to add 50 percent more to your needs, for a total of 600 micrograms per day.
Finally, if you are doubtful that you are able to meet your folate needs with diet alone, do take a vitamin supplement that contains folate if you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant.