Folic acid--essential for a healthy baby

By Lt. Col. Sandra Keelin, Registered Dietitian, U.S. Army Public Health CommandJanuary 2, 2013

One of the most important things you can do to help prevent serious birth defects in your baby is to get enough folic acid every day.

The U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to prevent birth defects.

Folate (folic acid) is a B-vitamin needed for cell division and blood cells. It is also known to help prevent neural tube birth defects that affect 3,000 pregnancies a year in the United States. Folic acid is essential for the development of the neural tube that encloses the spinal cord. When the neural tube fails to close properly, infants suffer disabilities such as paralysis of the lower body and learning disabilities or are still-born.

The baby's neural tube is formed in the first month of pregnancy -- before a woman knows she is pregnant! Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy reduces the risk of common and serious NTDs by 50-70 percent. In fact, since 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, all women of child-bearing age, even if not planning to become pregnant, should consume folic acid every day, even between pregnancies.

Unfortunately, only one-third of U.S. women between the ages of 15 and 45 consume the recommended amount from their diet. There are three ways that women can get enough folic acid:

•Take a vitamin supplement. The easiest way a woman can get the recommended daily amount of folic acid is to take a multivitamin daily. Most multivitamins sold in the United States have the recommended 400 mcg of folic acid.

•Eat a fortified breakfast cereal daily. Read the nutrition facts panel on the cereal box to ensure it is fortified with 100 percent of the daily value of folic acid. In addition, consume grains, pastas and breads that are enriched with folic acid. Since the introduction of fortification of breads, cereals and flour in 1998, the CDC reported a 36 percent reduction in neural tube defects.

•Eat foods super-rich in folate every day. Plant foods such as beans, legumes, dark leafy vegetables (spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, kale, broccoli, mustard greens) and citrus fruits are naturally rich in folate. Keep in mind that folic acid is water soluble and can be destroyed in cooking. Cook vegetables in as little water and as quickly as possible. In addition, read the labels on citrus juices to ensure they are fortified with extra folic acid.

Related Links:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health