Folate For Young Women - What You Need To Know
(Healthcastle.com) Women in their twenties and thirties are still lacking in the Folate department. Find out why it matters, and how you can ramp up your levels with food.
What is Folate?
Folate is a B vitamin involved in DNA synthesis and repair, cell division and amino acid metabolism. For women in their twenties and thirties it is key to preventing neural tube defects in children, which can happen even when a mom is not deficient in Folate. Neural tube defects cause issues with the brain, spine or spinal cord, such as spina bifida, and are highly preventable.
I’m not planning on getting pregnant, does it matter to me?
The short answer is yes. If getting pregnant is even a remote or accidental possibility, then Folate needs to be on your radar. Neural tube defects can happen in the first month, often before you would even know you were pregnant. This is an area of nutrition where prevention is key.
While Folate deficiency is almost non-existent in the population (2007-2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey), women of child bearing age were still under the ideal red blood cell Folate concentrations for prevention. The highest concentrations were found in those taking Folic acid supplements.
How Much Do I Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Folate in women 14 and older is 400 mcg. For those who are pregnant the RDA is 600 mcg and those who are lactating is 500 mcg.
If you are trying to avoid taking a supplement it is safest to aim for a minimum 600 mcg per day from food.
Is supplementing safe?
Current World Health Organization recommendations are for women of child bearing age to take 400 mcg (0.4mg) of supplemental folic acid daily. However many women have been concerned with the recent studies on increased risks of certain cancers with folic acid supplementation.
The levels of supplementation in the studies were fairly high and it seems to only be relevant to specific cancers- largely bowel adenomas and prostate cancer but a few others did seem very slightly increased too. If you have family history of cancer it is worth talking to your doctor to check if you might be at higher risk.
Other studies have shown a preventative effect with Folate supplementation, or no effect at all. Looking at the body of evidence, the risk of neural tube defects was substantially higher than the small increased risk of certain cancers on a population level.
It can be a confusing decision for those with a strong family history of cancers- talk to your doctor and dietitian to come to the right solution. If you choose not to supplement it can be helpful to get blood tests to ensure you’re in the ideal range and speak to a professional about running your usual diet through a computer program to see how much you’re getting from food and help you work in other food sources of Folate if needed.
If you choose to supplement buy a prenatal vitamin with 400 mcg of folic acid. There is no benefit to taking excessive amounts, so don’t double up on prenatal vitamins thinking more is better. There is no replacing the benefits to you or a baby of a healthy diet, we just can't replicate it with supplements alone.
Folate packed foods:
The best sources are beans and legumes and dark leafy greens. Check out the list below to see how you can build a folate rich diet with whole foods.
I haven’t included fortified foods in this list, but breads are always fortified with folate in Canada so can be an easy way to add some extra. Just be sure you’re choosing a healthy whole grain option and not missing out on these other nutrient rich foods.
- 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas 552 mcg
- 1/2 cup edamame beans 480 mcg (likely about ~ 2-3 cups with pods on)
- 1/2 cup cooked lentils 460 mcg
- 1/2 cup kidney beans 363 mcg
- 2 cups spinach (raw) 116 mcg
- 2 cups raw collard greens 120 mcg
- 1 cup raw beets 148 mcg
- 1 cup broccoli florets 50 mcg
- 5 medium asparagus spears 41 mcg
- 2 cups chopped kale 38 mcg
- 1 oz (14 halves) walnuts 28 mcg
- 1 oz sunflower seeds 67 mcg
A little planning goes a long way
Planning your meals and snacks to include some of the highest folate foods can help ensure you’re meeting your needs without a lot of monitoring. For example:
- Big spinach salad for lunch: 4 cups of raw spinach with a 1/2 cup of chickpeas – 784 mcg
- 1/2 cup Spicy Roasted Chickpeas as a snack – 500-600 mcg
- 1 cup broccoli with 1/4 cup hummus dip – 100 mcg
For more info on Folate and it's role in the body check out this Healthcastle Nutrition 101 post.
WHO guidelines on folate and pregnancy