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Folic Acid and Pregnancy

Por Claudia M. González MS, RD, LD/N* -

To have a healthy baby, the mother must first be healthy. Food and nutrients consumed before and during pregnancy can impact your baby's health. Help prevent your unborn baby from developing serious birth defects by taking enough folic acid every day, especially before conception and during early pregnancy.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin. The B vitamin folic acid helps prevent birth defects. Folic acid is an especially important nutrient for women of child-bearing age.

Why take folic acid?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all women of childbearing age, especially those planning to get pregnant, should consume about 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid daily. Studies have shown that women who have consumed an adequate amount of folic acid before and during the first weeks of their pregnancy, decrease their chances of having babies born with neural tube defects (NTD). Folic acid plays a large role in cell growth and development as well as tissue formation. Though nutrition experts, doctors, and scientists still don't know exactly how folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects, they definitely know this vitamin plays a crucial role in the development of DNA.

What are neural tube defects (NTDs)?

NTDs are caused when tissues around the brain and the spine of the fetus fail to develop properly. People with spina bifida have varying degrees of paralysis, which can affect their legs, bladders, and/or bowel functions. Those affected with this disease need lifelong medical attention. The most seriously affected babies are stillborn or do not survive long after birth.

How can you make sure you are getting enough folic acid?

Women of child-bearing age should take 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Intake is especially important one month before conception and at least three months afterward. During pregnancy, women may need to increase their daily intake of folic acid. They should discuss this with their health care provider.  Women desiring to get pregnant who have had previous pregnancies affected by an NTD are at an increased risk for future pregnancies affected by NTDs. These women need an increased amount of folic acid, and should be advised by their health care provider. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated that folic acid be added to enriched grain products so that women of child-bearing age can more easily increase their intake by eating breakfast cereals, breads, pastas, and rice containing 100% of the recommended daily folic-acid intake. Some women may not be able to get enough folic acid from foods, and need to take a vitamin supplement to reach the daily intake requirement. The table below provides some examples of foods containing folic acid.

Sources of Folic Acid


Micrograms (μg)

Breakfast cereals fortified with 100%of the Daily Value (DV), ¾ cup


Beef liver, cooked, braised, 3 ounces


Cowpeas (black-eyed), immature, cooked, boiled, ½ cup


Breakfast cereals, fortified with 25%of the DV, ¾ cup


Spinach, frozen, cooked, boiled, ½ cup


Great Northern beans, boiled, ½ cup


Asparagus, boiled, 4 spears


Fortifiedrice, white, long-grain, parboiled, enriched, cooked, ½ cup


Vegetarian baked beans, canned, 1 cup


Spinach, raw, 1 cup


Green peas, frozen, boiled, ½ cup


Broccoli, chopped, frozen, cooked, ½ cup


Avocado, raw, all varieties, sliced, ½ cup sliced


Peanuts, all types, dry roasted, 1 ounce


Lettuce, romaine, shredded, ½ cup


Orange juice, chilled, includes concentrate, ¾ cup


Turnip greens, frozen, cooked, boiled, ½ cup


Egg, whole, raw, fresh, 1 large


Cantaloupe, raw, ¼ medium


Papaya, raw, ½ cup cubes


Is there a danger of getting too much folic acid?

Though there is always a possibility of consuming too much of a vitamin or mineral, it would be difficult to consume a dangerous amount of folic acid. You can safely take a multivitamin containing 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid and eat a balanced diet containing foods with folic acid.

When do NTDs happen?

NTDs usually occur during the first 28 days of pregnancy, before a woman typically even knows she’s pregnant. Planned pregnancies account for only 50% of all pregnancies, so all women who could become pregnant should make the effort to consume adequate amounts of folic acid.



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