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folicaBy Louisa Paine

This week is Folic Acid Awareness Week, so I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about this vital nutrient. Folic acid is a vitamin that everyone’s body needs to make healthy new cells. It’s especially important for a baby’s development, so it’s no surprise that pregnant women need to include folic acid in their diets daily. However, you might be surprised to hear that even women who are able to get pregnant but don’t plan on getting pregnant should be taking folic acid. Folic acid is important in preventing birth defects of the brain and spine in the baby, and these birth defects happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before the mother even knows she’s pregnant. Half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, so many of my friends are keeping an eye on their folic acid intake even though they aren’t planning on having a baby anytime soon.

Folic acid’s natural form, folate, is found in many foods (folic acid is the human-made version of the nutrient). To make sure I’m getting enough folic acid every day, I eat a diet rich in natural folate. Good sources of folate include leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and whole grains.  It’s also important to take a folic acid supplement or eat a breakfast cereal that has folic acid added to it to make sure you’re getting enough. All women who can get pregnant should get 400 micrograms of folate/folic acid each day. Look for a vitamin or breakfast cereal that says it provides 100% of the daily value of folic acid and eat a variety of folate-containing foods.

It’s especially important to pay attention to folic acid if you’re a Hispanic woman. Foods in a traditional Hispanic diet such as corn tortillas are not fortified with folic acid. Hispanic women have the highest rates of pregnancies with birth defects linked to low folic acid. If you tend to eat corn products and other non-wheat grains that are not fortified or enriched with folic acid, make sure you are eating a wide variety of folate-containing foods and take a folic acid supplement.

By making sure you’re getting enough folic acid every day, you’re caring for yourself and for your future baby!

For more information, visit:  http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/family-health/folic-acid-campaign.html

Louisa Paine is a dietetic intern at Simmons College.

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