Increase your folate intake through diet to enjoy a healthy life
Vitamins drive body functions and regulate metabolism. Although they are required only in minute quantities, their deficiency can have dangerous outcomes for your body. The body needs a wide variety of vitamins. Since your body cannot synthesise them, you get them through natural food, vitamin supplements or fortified foods. Vitamins are either water-soluble (B and C) or fat-soluble (A, D, E, K).
Folate: A natural folic acid
Folate is the natural form of folic acid (also known as vitamin B9). It is a water-soluble vitamin. The body requires it to accomplish various functions, e.g., cell growth, cell division, synthesis and repair of genetic material (DNA). It has a role in synthesising red blood cells, and its deficiency is a cause of anaemia (folate deficiency anaemia) in adults. In addition, its deficiency can lead to poor growth in children.
Have you ever looked at the prescription of a pregnant woman? It must include a folic acid supplement. This is because babies' neural tube (the primary tissue that develops into the brain and the spinal cord) usually forms in the first trimester of pregnancy, and folic acid is required for this.
Moreover, the dietary supplementation of folic acid also increases milk production and milk quality in lactating mothers. Therefore, folic acid supplementation is highly recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Are you folate deficient?
Their deficiency cannot go unnoticed, given the enormous functions of folate and other B vitamins in your body. Besides the issues mentioned earlier, folate deficiency can lead to fatigue, diarrhoea, mouth sores, swollen tongue, grey hair and poor growth. In addition, some studies have highlighted that folic acid deficiency can increase colorectal cancer risk.
Your physician may ask you to undergo blood tests to determine the folate levels in your plasma. A plasma folate level of 3 mcg/L or lower indicates folate deficiency and highlights the need for folic acid supplementation.
To find out more about folate deficiency testing, please click here.
Folate deficiency in pregnancy could be dangerous.
You must be aware of the consequences of any nutritional deficiency during pregnancy. For example, any shortage of folate, particularly during the first trimester of pregnancy, can lead to neural tube defects in children.
Therefore, the CDC and other health institutions recommend folic acid supplementation during early pregnancy to avoid such congenital disabilities. Folic acid is usually coupled with Vitamin b12 to have maximum benefit.
Where can you find folate?
Definitely diet. Everything enters your body through the mouth. Therefore, you can provide the required folic acid to your body through food or folic acid supplements. Nevertheless, investment in a good and folic acid-rich diet is more prudent than expensive commercial supplements that may not be friendly to your digestive system. Another practical choice could be the folic acid fortification of probiotics, e.g., yoghurt.
Moreover, the rising medical bills (total healthcare expenditure in the UK was 269.5 billion British pounds in 2020, more than 8% of its gross domestic product) might also force you to search for dietary sources of folate.
How much folate is required?
Before searching for the source of folate, you should know how much folate is needed by your body. Like other nutritional factors, folate requirements are related to your age and gender (whether you are pregnant or not). For healthy adults, the daily dose of 400 mcg of Dietary Folate Equivalent(DFE) is enough, but for a pregnant woman, the dosage is 600 mcg DFE. Therefore, the breastfeeding mother should aim between these two levels, i.e., 500 mcg. This recommended dietary allowance changes progressively with your age.
What is this DFE? As mentioned earlier, folate is a natural form of folic acid occurring in natural products. However, your body naturally absorbs more folic acid from commercial supplements than folate absorption from raw foods. Therefore, the unit DFE- dietary folate equivalents are used to adjust the difference in natural folate and synthetic folic acid absorption.
You need only 60% folic acid than your folate needs for a better understanding. In other words, one mcg of folic acid is equivalent to 1.67 mcg of folic acid. So, 600 mcg of folate equals 360 mcg of folic acid. You must consider this while using any food to make up for folate deficiency.
One thing to note is that various foods, e.g., coffee and alcohol, can alter folate absorption through your intestines. So, the person on these diets should take more folate. The final authority in this decision will be your physician. Another thing to note is that folate is a water-soluble vitamin, and its extra dose will be removed through the urine. Therefore, you do not need to worry about slightly more intake. However, a tolerable upper level of 1000-1360 mcg DFE is often cited. So, let us search for some folic acid-rich foods that can protect you from folate deficiency.
Natural foods that can substitute folic acid supplements
Taking folic acid supplements may not be friendly for your pocket. Many foods (both plant and animal-based) around you are rich in folate. Notably, dark green and leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and beans are rich sources of folate. Citrus fruits (lemons, oranges), bananas and strawberries are good sources. Some commercial food products are also marketed as folic acid supplements for folate-deficient people. Your folate fortification program should include these foods.
Eggs are your best amino acid-rich friends. They come to rescue you when it comes to nutritional needs. However, they will not disappoint you in the folate deficiency too. A medium (60g) egg can provide you with 20-24 mcg of folate, most present in the yolk. So, including two eggs in your daily diet can provide almost 12% of your daily folate. Besides folate, eggs are a valuable treasure of other vitamins and minerals.
However, it may not be an excellent choice if you have high cholesterol levels, as egg yolk also has cholesterol. The cholesterol in the egg yolk can predispose you to cardiovascular disease in this case, so be careful. However, the pregnant woman will need one more egg per day to meet 10% of the daily requirement.
So, you can use eggs to combat folate deficiency but keep a strict eye on your lipid profile.
Legumes, e.g., kidney beans, lentils and peas, are a rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are recommended for pregnant women due to high folate levels. Each variety of legumes will have a different level of folate. For guidelines, the following levels are mentioned in the literature for legumes;
- Peas 274 mcg (per 100g)
- Red kidney beans 230 mcg (per cup)
- Pinto beans 294 mcg (per cup)
- Black beans 256 mcg (per cup)
- Lentils (mature) 479 mcg (per 100g)
So, it would be wise to include legumes in your pregnancy diet, particularly if you are a vegetarian.
Green leafy vegetables are a too rich source of folate to be ignored. Include these leaves in the daily dose of salad, particularly for pregnant women. The folate contents of routinely used vegetables (mcg/100g serving) are listed below.
- Cabbage (raw) 43
- Kale (raw) 141
- Collard (raw) 129
- Brussels sprouts 61
- Cauliflower (raw) 57
- Spinach (raw) 194
- Endive 142
So, a person consuming enough green vegetables will have sufficient folate intake, and neural tube defects are less likely to occur if such a diet is maintained during pregnancy. Additionally, you do not need to purchase expensive dietary supplements.
Citrus fruits are your good friends when it comes to vitamin deficiencies. Although their popularity is for vitamin C, they are also a moderately rich source of folate. One medium-sized orange can provide you with 40 mcg of folate, while one cup of orange juice drives 110 mcg into your body. So, if you like orange, your winter is likely to be free of folate deficiency. A quarter cup-sized serving of lemon juice has about 13 mcg of folic acid.
Also, add plenty of lemon and orange juice to your diet. Enrich your summer with daily doses of lemon juices to ward off both folate and vitamin C deficiencies.
Meats are generally not a rich source of folate, except for beef liver. It is a highly concentrated source of folate, and a 100g serving can deliver nearly 260 mcg of folate, which accounts for 65% of your daily requirements. However, this may not be a viable option for you if you are a vegetarian.
Besides this, the beef liver is also rich in proteins, minerals and vitamins, particularly vitamin B12 and copper. So, carry on your love for beef steaks, but add liver to it to make it more useful. A pregnant woman is advised to consume beef liver regularly.
So, if you have a folate deficiency, visit the nearest butcher.
If you do not like dark green leaves and legumes, the Broccoli in your kitchen is also an excellent source of folate. Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable commonly used in the United Kingdom. A 100g serving gives you 63 mcg of folate. I found it prudent to mention it separately due to its enormous value as a folate source. Moreover, it can be cooked and can also be used in salad.
Cooking can increase the folate content, and you will get 84 mcg from only a half cup of cooked Broccoli. It is roughly 14-15% of your daily requirements. Besides this, it is also a rich source of potassium, vitamin c and dietary fibre. Add Broccoli to your diet to avoid folate deficiency.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Familiar with this saying? I would modify it to add a banana too. A medium-sized ripe banana can add 24mcg of folate to your body, roughly 6% of your daily requirement. Therefore, add as many bananas to your pregnancy diet (at least one if you do not like more).
Alternately, if you do not like bananas, you can add them to milk in your favourite milk as milkshakes. It will add more beneficial nutrients to it as well as improve the taste.
Although initially grown in tropical regions of America, it is now cultivated worldwide. It is a nutrient-dense fruit, and alongside other nutrients, its 145 g serving size (of the postharvest ripened form) can contribute more than 100 mcg of folate to your body (roughly 24.5% of daily need). The USDA has given a lower figure of 37 mcg/100g.
Whichever figure is correct, it is established that papaya is a good source of folic acid, antioxidants (carotenoids), vitamin C and potassium. Besides being extremely delicious, papaya is also known to have anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. It is also beneficial for cardiac health. However, unripe papaya is not used in pregnancy because it can cause uterine contractions and potential pregnancy loss. However, it could be a reliable folate supplement for men and non-pregnant women.
Although traditionally used for their rich contents of minerals, fatty acids, fibre, heart-friendly fats and proteins, the sunflower seeds are also an invaluable treasure of vitamins. For example, a full cup of sunflower seeds can deliver more than 70% (303.36 mcg) of folate.
These seeds are among the healthy snacks. They could be used in various ways, e.g., baked in bread, sprinkled on salad and crushed and sprinkled over any meat. Taking sunflower seeds while watching TV could be an excellent comfort food recipe for this memorable period (pregnancy). So eat sunflower seeds and enjoy your pregnancy.
At the end of the day
The benefits of folate are numerous. It is essential for the early pregnancy period. Given this, you can not afford its deficiency. Modern nutritional science has highlighted various folate-rich natural foods, e.g., eggs, legumes, vegetables, citrus fruits, beef liver, banana, papaya and sunflower seeds. Incorporate these foods into your regular and pregnancy diets to maximise benefits. Proper use of these foods can manage folate deficiencies. Simply speaking, you should diversify your diet for a better quality of life.
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