Women who are childbearing age need folic acid

September 19, 2000

Women who are childbearing age need folic acid

If you're a woman of childbearing age, the March of Dimes hopes you'll adopt the "B Attitude."

This is not the baby attitude, but the attitude that taking a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of the B vitamin, folic acid, is an important part of your daily routine. Why?

Because folic acid is important for a healthy pregnancy, especially in its early stages.

Recent studies have shown that folic acid may help reduce the risk of neural tube defects - serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Because neural tube defects originate during the first month of pregnancy, often before many women know they're pregnant, getting enough folic acid is necessary before pregnancy.

Since 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, a diet rich in folic acid is recommended for all women of childbearing age.


Exactly how folic acid prevents neural tube defects is not clear. Some evidence indicates it may correct a nutritional deficiency, while other research suggests that supplemental folic acid helps compensate for errors in how the mother's body breaks down the vitamin. In addition to helping prevent neural tube defects, folic acid plays other important roles during pregnancy. It helps pregnant women produce the additional blood cells they need. It's also essential in supporting the rapid growth of the placenta and fetus. In one study, women who did not get adequate folic acid during pregnancy were more likely to have a premature baby with a low birth weight.

There are three main ways to get more folic acid:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Through folate-rich foods.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Through foods fortified with folic acid.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> By taking supplements containing folic acid.

A three-pronged approach is generally recommended to ensure adequate intake.

In the United States, the leading dietary sources of folate - the natural form of folic acid in food - are fruits, citrus juices, leafy green vegetables, dry beans, peanuts and whole-grain products. By including these foods as part of your daily diet, you consume not only folate, but also a variety of other important vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

The average intake of natural folate among women in the United States is only around 200 micrograms per day.

In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that a synthetic form of folic acid should be added to enriched grain products, including bread, pasta and rice.

At that time, the FDA also authorized fortifying ready-to-eat cereals with up to 400 micrograms of folic acid, using a synthetic product. This recommendation represents 100 percent of the daily value of folic acid in the diet.

Cooking and storing food can destroy some natural folate. The amount of the vitamin available to the body varies widely among foods and the condition of the food when it is eaten.

On the other hand, the body can absorb nearly 100 percent of the synthetic form of folic acid. This has led the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the March of Dimes to recommend that all women of reproductive age take 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid daily either through fortified breakfast cereals or a multivitamin.

If you are a woman of reproductive age, talk to your doctor or dietitian about taking a daily multivitamin that contains folic acid and start incorporating foods rich in folic acid into your diet for you and your baby's health.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County. Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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