Folate for pregnancy. What is folate vs. folic acid and why is this nutrient so important for moms and babies? Here are some folate-rich foods and tips for supplementation for a healthy pregnancy.
Folate – or vitamin B9 – is one of those nutrients you hear more about when you decide to try and get pregnant, and then all throughout your pregnancy. And for good reason!
Folate is a very important vitamin and it’s crucial to get enough of it, especially when growing a baby.
Fortunately, it can be very easy to get all your folate needs met with a predominantly plant-based diet and appropriate prenatal supplementation.
Folate vs. folic acid
Folate and folic acid are the same vitamin, just in different forms of it. Still, we often use them interchangeably.
The main difference between them is that folate is the natural form of vitamin B9, whereas folic acid is the synthetic version used in most supplements.
Like the other B vitamins, vitamin B9 is water-soluble, which means it’s important to incorporate it daily to make up for natural losses through excretion.
What does folate do?
Folate is essential for red blood cell production, cell growth, and the formation of DNA and other genetic material. It’s involved in numerous functions in your body.
Having a vitamin B9 or folate deficiency has been linked to a higher risk for serious health issues, including:
- Birth abnormalities, including neural tube defects
- High levels of homocysteine, which are associated with a higher risk for heart disease and stroke
- Higher risk for certain cancers
Folate for pregnancy
Getting enough folate is especially critical during pregnancy, because of its role in fetal neural tube development. The neural tube forms the early brain and spine, and vitamin B9 is necessary for it to close properly.
The most common neural tube defects include spina bifida, a spinal cord defect, and anencephaly, a brain defect.
Having enough folate in your bloodstream during pregnancy can help make sure that your baby gets all of the vitamin B9 he or she needs in these early stages.
A good place to start is to make sure you get the recommended 400 micrograms of folate or folic acid on a daily basis, ideally through a combination of foods and a prenatal supplement.
Most prenatal supplements will contain 100% of your daily needs for vitamin B9, and may be formulated with either folic acid or folate.
It can take a few months to accumulate optimal levels of folate in your bloodstream. Making a habit to incorporate folate-rich foods in your diet regularly, pregnant or not, is a great idea.
Best folate foods
The name “folate” comes from the Latin word “folium”, which means leaf. And it just so happens that the best dietary sources of folate are leafy green vegetables.
These include things like kale, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and bok choy.
You might enjoy these sauteed and warm, raw in a salad, or even added to smoothies.
Other good sources of folate include:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Oranges and citrus fruits
- Brussels sprouts
- Wheat germ
Because folate is so important, food fortification with folate is required in the United States and Canada.
This means that vitamin B9 – in the form of folic acid – has been added to them to boost nutritional content.
Some of the most commonly B9-fortified foods are breads, flours, breakfast cereals, and pastas. You will see it listed in the ingredients on the packaging.
Folate and MTHFR
The active form of folate is known as 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). When folate reaches your digestive system, your body converts most of it into 5-MTHF before it goes into your bloodstream to be utilized.
That being said, some people have what is called a MTHFR mutation, a genetic mutation that prevents this conversion from happening. In other words, vitamin B9 is not broken down properly.
MTHFR mutation is not uncommon, affecting around 25% of Hispanic and 15% of Caucasian individuals in the United States, but many are unaware that they have it.
Screening for the MTHFR mutation is not standard for pregnant women, though testing is available. Note that many women with the mutation go on to have successful, healthy pregnancies.
If you’re found to have a MTHFR mutation, your physician may prescribe certain medications, including a prenatal vitamin with L-methylfolate instead of folic acid.
We recommend speaking to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about your risk.
Folate for pregnancy is super important and the good news is that it’s easy to get enough! Understanding the differences between folate vs. folic acid is helpful as you incorporate folate-rich foods and prenatal supplementation for your healthy pregnancy.
For more info, download our FREE supplement guide and grab your copy of The Predominantly Plant-Based Pregnancy Guide.
Chime In: Where do you get folate or folic acid from in your diet?
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