You may have heard that women need folate before and during pregnancy to prevent birth defects. This is true. Folate, a water-soluble B vitamin, helps produce DNA and form healthy new cells, which is why it’s especially important for mothers-to-be. We all need folate, for this reason and because, with vitamin B12, folate helps create normal red blood cells. We get two forms of folate in our diet: the naturally occurring form in foods, known as food folate, and folic acid, the form used in dietary supplements and fortified foods.
Rich sources of folate include dark green vegetables, beans and fortified cereals. Some fruits, such as cantaloupe, honeydew melon, oranges and orange and grapefruit juices, are also good sources of folate. In an effort to prevent neural tube defects (defects in the brain or spine of the developing fetus) in the United States, federal mandates started requiring manufacturers to fortify cereal and grain products with folic acid in 1998. Thus, products like bread, pasta, flour, breakfast cereal and rice can greatly contribute to folate intakes.
A combination of fortified and natural foods can get you to your folate goals in a jiffy!
Over time, inadequate folate intakes can lead to megaloblastic anemia, a condition characterized by abnormally large red blood cells that do not carry oxygen to properly fuel cells throughout the body. Symptoms of this condition include weakness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty in concentrating and shortness of breath. If you also happen to have iron or vitamin B12 deficiency, which have similar symptoms, this condition is hard to diagnose.
Pregnant women who don’t get enough folate, especially during the first trimester, are at risk of delivering a baby with neural tube defects.
Consuming too much folate from food doesn’t seem to result in ill effects, at least not in healthy individuals. But don’t go out and load up on folate—scientists say that amounts above those recommended offer no benefit.
People who are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency should be particularly cautious of consuming too much folic acid from supplements and fortified foods. High intakes of folic acid supplements may mask or delay the diagnosis of vitamin B12 deficiency, putting individuals at risk of neurological damage. Vitamin B12 deficiency occurs when a lack of vitamin B12 prevents the body from producing enough red blood cells, which prevents body cells from getting the oxygen they need. If vitamin B12 levels remain low for too long, the result can be potentially permanent brain and nerve cell damage.
Those at higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency include people who follow a vegan diet (B12 is found in animal-based foods), adults older than 50 (who often don’t produce enough of the stomach enzyme needed to effectively absorb B12) and anyone with a digestive problem that impairs absorption of nutrients (e.g., celiac disease, Crohn’s). Consult your physician if you fall into one of these categories.
The following table lists the recommended intake for healthy people based on current scientific information.