Folic acid facts you need to know
Folic acid supports your baby’s earliest development, making it a key nutrient for your first trimester of pregnancy. Learn what it does, how much is recommended and which foods can help to increase your intake to reduce the risk of neural tube problems.
Folic acid – protecting your baby’s future health1
Even before you know you’re pregnant, folate, or folic acid in its manufactured form, is doing its job of supporting your baby’s development. It plays a significant role in the formation of your baby’s neural tube – the structure that forms in the first month of life that eventually becomes your baby’s spinal cord and brain.
Together, these will form your baby’s central nervous system, which will act as the control centre for your baby’s whole body, and provide the foundation for all future growth, development, and normal functioning later in life. Since there is a well-established relationship between maternal folic acid intake and development of the neural tube in the young foetus, it is easy to see why folic acid is one of the nutritional supplements that is strongly recommended during pregnancy.
An adequate intake of folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) including spina bifida. This condition results from the spinal column not closing properly, leaving the spinal cord exposed and potentially causing developmental problems.
Although folate is present in many foods, it is difficult to get sufficient levels from your diet. Taking a daily supplement means you can be sure you’re getting the amount you need to support your growing baby.
How much folic acid do I need during pregnancy?2
The Department of Health recommends that pregnant women should take a folic acid supplement of 400mcg (micrograms) per day. Ideally, it’s best to start while trying to conceive so that you have a healthy intake from the moment your pregnancy begins. You should continue to take it throughout the first trimester, which is when your baby’s neural tube develops, forms and closes.
Many prenatal multivitamins contain the recommended 400mcg of folic acid, or you can choose to take a separate one if you prefer. If you are on a lower income, you may qualify for free supplements through Healthy Start, a government-run initiative. Your midwife will be able to tell you more about this scheme.
Some women are at higher risk of neural tube defects and may need to take more folic acid during their pregnancy to provide greater protection. Your doctor may recommend taking 5000mcg per day in the following circumstances:
- If you or your partner have a neural tube defect
- If there is any history of neural tube defects in your families
- If you have had another pregnancy affected by neural tube defects
- If you have diabetes
- If you are taking medication for epilepsy
If you are in your first trimester and didn’t take folic acid before getting pregnant, don’t worry. Start taking it now and carry on until at least your 12th week.
Increase your intake with good sources of folate
Folate is the food source of folic acid. Good sources include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Brown rice
- Granary bread
- Fortified breakfast cereals
It’s worth noting that as a water-soluble nutrient, folate is sensitive to certain cooking methods, particularly boiling and stewing. If you’re boiling your vegetables they can lose up to 40% of their folate during the process, and stewing can cause an even greater loss of up to 80%. When preparing folate-rich vegetables, you can protect the nutritional content by steaming, blanching or baking them, or choosing to eat them raw. If you do boil them, aim to use the cooking water, either in a gravy or as a nutritional addition to soup3.
(80g is the reccomended portion size for fruit and veg4)
If you haven’t reached your 12th week of pregnancy yet, make sure you are supplementing your diet with at least 400mcg of folic acid.
Increase your intake throughout pregnancy with the following folate-rich meals and snacks:
- Lentil and chard curry with brown rice
- Baked beans on granary toast
- Roasted kale chips
- Broccoli dipped in hummus
1. NHS UK. Spina Bifida [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/Spina-bifida/Pages/Introduction.aspx[Accessed June 2014]
2. NHS UK. Why do I need folic acid in pregnancy? [Online]. 2013. Available at: www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/913.aspx?categoryid=54&subcategoryid=129 [Accessed June 2014]
3. McCance and Widdowson. Composite of foods integrated dataset [Online]. 2002. Available at: http://tna.europarchive.org/20110116113217/http://www.food.gov.uk/science/dietarysurveys/dietsurveys/ [Accessed June 2014]
4. NHS UK. 5 A DAY portion sizes - how much is a portion of fruit or veg? [Online]. Available at: www.nhs.uk/change4life/pages/five-a-day-portion-sizes.aspx [Accessed June 2014]
5. Gov.UK. Nutrient analysis of fruit and vegetables [Online]. 2013. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/167942/Nutrient_analysis_of_fruit_and_vegetables_-_Summary_Report.pdf [Accessed June 2014]
Last reviewed: 18th August 2014
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