Nutrition Info Just for You

June 17, 2019

What Is Folic Acid & When Do I Need It?

If you’re pregnant or could become pregnant, you’ve probably heard that it’s crucial to consume folic acid. But a lot of mystery still surrounds this important B vitamin. Plus, labels on folic acid supplements can be hard to understand. For example, what’s the difference between folic acid and the folate listed on supplement and food labels? Which nutrients do YOU need, and how much should you take to get all the benefits of folic acid and folate? Keep reading for our complete guide to folic acid and folate.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FOLATE & FOLIC ACID?

One of the most common misconceptions is that folate and folic acid are the exact same thing. Let’s jump in with some simple definitions of folate and folic acid to help clear up the differences:

Folate is a naturally occurring version of water-soluble vitamin B9. Folate is found naturally in many of the foods we eat, like leafy green veggies, some meats, and beans and lentils.

Folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9. Many foods in the US, especially refined grain products like breads and cereals, are fortified with folic acid.

HOW MUCH FOLATE OR FOLIC ACID DO I NEED?

Many Americans already consume folate and folic acid in their diets. Folate is naturally occurring in many foods, and folic acid is added to many fortified breads and cereals in the US.

But if your doctor advises you to up your folic acid intake, you may want to try a supplement. If you’ve tried to decipher the info on a supplement facts label lately, you know it can be confusing. So here’s the scoop: supplement facts labels here in the US list folate in units of “mcg DFE”. That means “micrograms of dietary folate equivalents”. If any of the folate contained in the supplement is in the form of folic acid, that amount is in parentheses listed right after folate:

Example: Folate 600 mcg DFE (360 mcg folic acid)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that women who are of childbearing age who could become pregnant should get 400 mcg DFE per day. If you’re breastfeeding, that recommended daily intake (RDI) goes up to 500 mcg DFE. And if you’re already pregnant, the official RDI is 600 mcg DFE.1

Research shows that taking folic acid or folate is crucial before, during and after conception. Experts recommend taking folic acid four weeks prior to conception, and at least 12 weeks after conception to support fetal development.2

In other words, if you’re even thinking about becoming pregnant or could possibly become pregnant, you should be getting folic acid. One of the most important times to be taking folic acid is before most women even know they’re pregnant.

Tip: if you ever have questions about what supplements and vitamins you should be taking for pregnancy, always talk to your regular doctor or your OBGYN!

Young beautiful pregnant woman buying healthy foods at the market

FOLIC ACID DEFICIENCY

Because American food manufacturers fortify lots of foods with folic acid, folic acid deficiencies are relatively rare in the United States. That said, you’re more likely to have a folate or folic acid deficiency if you are a heavy drinker or have inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms of a folic acid deficiency generally include3:

• Shortness of breath
• Fatigue
• Irritability
• Weakness

If you suspect that you have a folic acid deficiency, talk to your doctor about treatment options.

THE BENEFITS OF FOLATE & FOLIC ACID

Folate is beneficial for most adults, but it’s especially crucial for pregnant women. Women who supplement their diets with adequate amounts of folate both before and during pregnancy support their baby’s development in utero4.

The spinal cord begins to develop during the first month of pregnancy, before you might even know that you’re pregnant. That’s why experts recommend that you start supplementing your diet with folate when you are trying to conceive to help promote healthy fetal development.

HOW TO GET MORE FOLATE AND FOLIC ACID FOR PREGNANCY

Here are three easy ways to help make sure you’re consuming enough folate or folic acid:

1. Eat Folate-Rich Foods

Folate is naturally available in lots of delicious foods. For example, 3 ounces of braised beef liver has a whopping 215 mcg DFE…

Not too eager to start making liver a regular part of your diet? Yeah, we get that. Never fear, lots of green veggies and lentils also have folate.

A ½-cup of steamed spinach has 131 mcg DFE, 1/2-cup of boiled black-eyed peas have 105 mcg, and 4 spears of steamed asparagus have 89mcg DFE.

For other sources of folate, you can eat steamed brussels sprouts, avocados, or steamed broccoli.

Try making a salad with spinach and asparagus, make a lentil or bean soup, or snack on some avocado toast to help get your daily recommended amount of folate.

2. Eat Foods Fortified with Folic Acid
Unlike folate, folic acid doesn’t occur naturally in foods. But if you snack on enriched breakfast cereals, white rice and pasta in the U.S., then these generally are fortified with folic acid. These can give you a good source of your daily DFEs. So if you’re looking for an excuse to indulge in some carbs, now you have one!

3. Take Prenatal Vitamins
If you think your diet is lacking, or if your doctor recommends it, you may want to take a prenatal vitamin with folate. As we said before — but it’s so important that we’ll repeat it — most experts recommend that women of childbearing age who could become pregnant should take folic acid or a prenatal vitamin that contains folate.

vitafusion Prenatal and vitafusion Simply Good Prenatal vitamins both contain 600 mcg DFE, which meets the NIH’s RDI during pregnancy. Plus, vitafusion supplements are formulated without iron, which means they’re gentle on the stomach. This is clutch when pregnancy is making you feel queasy!

We love sharing our insights about vitamins and health. But that doesn’t mean they should be a substitute for professional medical advice.
For that, you should talk to your doctor!

1 Folate, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Once of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health (NIH).
2 Roth, C. et al; Mol Nutr Food Res, 2013.
3 Bailey, L. et al; J Nutr, 2015.
4 Wilson, RD et al; J Obstet Gynaecol Can, 2015

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Published by Colleen Welsch

Colleen Welsch has been writing about women's nutrition, health, fitness, and the clean beauty industry for many years. Born and raised in Ohio, Colleen recently returned to the U.S. after spending a year in Spain. In her spare time, Colleen loves traveling and petting dogs.

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