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Elizabeth Strawbridge is a graduate of the University of Georgia and currently completing her dietetic internship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She grew up overseas, living in London and Melbourne, Australia, and has a love for traveling, foreign cultures and cuisines. Becoming more and more passionate about the earth and the environment, Elizabeth has been a vegetarian for over two years now and enjoys the virtues of a plant-based diet.

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H ealthy Table*

Folic Acid: An Easy & Effective Way to Prevent Birth Defects
By Elizabeth Strawbridge

Do you know of a vitamin that helps your body create new cells? This is a job so important, especially during pregnancy when our bodies are making lots of new cells, that low levels of this vitamin can cause birth defects. Since 1996, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has required all enriched grain products in the USA to be fortified with this vitamin. This has helped to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects (NTDs), a type of severe birth defects.

* "You can find this vitamin in a variety of sources, including the folic acid in whole foods (its natural form)"

This all-important vitamin is folic acid, a water-soluble B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts, dried beans and peas. Of course, Americans also consume folate (the man-made form of folic acid added to foods or taken as a supplement) in enriched grain products such as white breads, pasta, rice, breakfast cereals and flour.

How Much Folic Acid Do I Need?
The recommended daily intake of folic acid for all adults is 400 micrograms (?g, a 1/1000th of a gram). This is the amount provided in most adult multivitamins. Check your multivitamin/mineral supplement at home to see that it has 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for folic acid or folate and you're doing fine. Although the folate in supplements and fortified foods is better absorbed by our bodies than the folic acid in food sources, keep in mind that there are other nutrients in whole foods that we cannot get from taking a multivitamin.

During pregnancy, since your body is now producing more cells it needs more folic acid, which is why the recommended daily intake is increased to 600 micrograms a day. Breastfeeding moms need 500 micrograms a day.

It is extremely important that all women of childbearing age, pregnant or not, meet the daily recommendation of 400 micrograms to help prevent birth defects. Neural tube defects, such as Spina Bifida, occur within the first few weeks of pregnancy. This is so early that many women do not yet realize that they are pregnant, and once the defect has occurred (the spinal cord does not close properly), nothing can be done to reverse it. For this reason, women must consume 400 micrograms of folic acid before and during pregnancy for the best protection.

Where Do I Find Folic Acid? Is it Easy to Eat 400 Micrograms Everyday?
You can find this vitamin in a variety of sources, including the folic acid in whole foods (its natural form), or as folate in multivitamin supplements or in enriched grain products. The following chart shows some of the foods with the highest levels of folic acid:

Spinach, cooked ½ cup 130
Broccoli, steamed, 1 cup 95
Asparagus, boiled, 4 spears 85
Turnip/Collard Greens, cooked, ½ cup 85
Romaine Lettuce, 1 cup 75
Beans: (all cooked, 1 cup)
Lentils 350
Pinto Beans 295
Chickpeas / Garbanzo Beans 280
Black Beans 255
Navy Beans 255
Kidney Beans 230
Papaya, 1 115
Peanuts, ¼ cup 85
Sunflower seeds, ¼ cup 80
Flaxseeds, 2 Tbsp 55
Orange, 1 40

So, to see what a sample daily menu might look like to ensure that you get enough folic acid, you might choose to eat:

Breakfast: 2 Tablespoons of flaxseeds on breakfast cereal - 55 micrograms
Lunch: ½ cup black beans with rice and chicken breast - 125 micrograms
Dinner: ½ cup cooked spinach with lasagna and garlic bread- 130 micrograms
Snack: Snack mix with ¼ cup peanuts - 85 micrograms
Daily Total: 395 micrograms
** Keep in mind that the breakfast cereal, white rice and bread in this menu are all likely to be fortified with folate, so the daily total will be well over 400 micrograms.

What Should I Do Now? A Quick Summary
If you're a woman of childbearing age, be aware of the importance of consuming enough folic acid every day, even if you're not pregnant or not planning on becoming pregnant

If you do not eat a balanced diet with at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement as a "back-up plan"

Focus on trying new foods high in folic acid, such as leafy green vegetables, dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds