If you are currently pregnant, the journey of sustaining a whole other life in your body probably feels like an extraordinary experience but at the same time, a great deal of responsibility ( in a positive way of course! )
Although there are many aspects relating to the healthy growth and development of the fetus that are beyond our control, one of the main factors that we do have control over is our lifestyle choices- namely our diet.
There are a handful of nutrients that you do not want to be missing out on during your pregnancy to ensure the best possible health outcome for your baby. These include choline, iron, calcium, Vitamin D, iodine, and folate to name a few.
If you recently found out that you are pregnant or are planning on conceiving, you are in luck! Today, Wellspring Nutrition is specifically going to highlight the importance of folate, and how this nutrient can be a powerful ally for preventing a common type of birth defect- the neural tube defect.
What is a Neural Tube Defect?
Neural tube defect is a birth defect that affects the central nervous system of the baby. In a developing embryo, the neural tube is the precursor to their brain and the spinal cord. Neural tube defect occurs when the neural tube does not properly go through the closure process to complete its formation. The two common types of neural tube defect include:
- Spina bifida (swelling or protrusion of spinal cord or fluid in the back)
- Anencephaly (exclusion of a major segment of the brain)
What is folate?
Folate, otherwise known as vitamin B-9, is found in various foods. As they play an important role in the nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) production and amino acid (the building blocks of protein) metabolism, they are crucial to the functioning of cells.
Folic acid is its synthetic form- meaning folate that is found in dietary supplements and fortified foods.
Why folate is important
The need for folate significantly increases during pregnancy especially because the event of a neural tube defect is closely linked to maternal folate deficiency. Inadequate folate intake can lead to a high homocysteine level in the blood, which is considered to be a risk factor for neural tube defect. Homocysteine is an amino acid and as it is broken down by the vitamin B-complexes, having a high level of this usually indicates deficiency in vitamins.
According to a recent study, another risk factor for neural tube development is the lack of DNA repair function. Since folate is crucial to DNA synthesis, folate deficiency can lead to a loss in the integrity of DNA. Thus, the mechanism for DNA repair is going to be negatively impacted. Genome stability is an important aspect of neural development for the embryo, and adequate folate intake is necessary for a properly functioning DNA repair mechanism.
The timing of sufficient folate intake is important to consider. Neural tube formation of an embryo is completed around three to four weeks after conception. This means that anyone trying to conceive should ideally start incorporating folate in their diet as soon as possible, even if pregnancy is yet to be confirmed.
Even if you are reading this much further into your pregnancy, there are still reasons to consume an adequate amount of folate.
Other than lowering the risks of neural tube defects, research shows that sufficient folate intake during pregnancy is beneficial for the neurodevelopment of the child. There is a study that links prenatal folic acid supplementation to a lowering of the risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and advancements to the cognitive, motor and intellectual functions of the child.
What food should I eat for folate?
Although the general recommendation is about 400 micrograms a day, pregnant women are advised to consume about 600 micrograms of folate every day.
Here are some food items that are good sources of folate to help meet this target:
- Beef Liver
- Black-eyed peas
- Brussel sprouts
- Romaine Lettuce
As you can see, leafy greens, legumes, and liver are the best sources.
Moreover, it is important to note that folate tends to be sensitive to heat and oxygen. Especially for the leafy greens, it is advised to eat them fresh or have them lightly cooked. In a study that compared the folate retention for different food products, for spinach, boiling led to only 49 percent retention of folate. On the other hand, steaming proved to be the best way to preserve folate in vegetables. Another good news is that the same study found that grilling beef for an extended period of time did not result in much loss of folate as well.
Other than foods naturally present with folate, consuming grain products may be helpful as well. This is because starting in 1998, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated a folate fortification of grain products such as bread, rice, cereal, flour, and pasta.
However, consumption of refined grain products should be limited during pregnancy to prevent significant spikes in your blood sugar levels.
Looking for more support?
Our fertility dietician Anabelle is available for one-on-one consultation and can help you address any of your concerns regarding fertility, pregnancy or hormonal imbalances like PCOS!
- “Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, bengal gram), mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt.” https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173757/nutrients
- “Embryology, Neural Tube.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542285/
- “Folate and Folic Acid on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels.”https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/folate-and-folic-acid-nutrition-and-supplement-facts-labels#:~:text=For%20folate%2C%20the%20DV%20is,consume%20500%20mcg%20DFE%20daily.
- Gao Y, Sheng C, Xie RH, Sun W, Asztalos E, Moddemann D, Zwaigenbaum L, Walker M, Wen SW. “New Perspective on Impact of Folic Acid Supplementation during Pregnancy on Neurodevelopment/Autism in the Offspring Children – A Systematic Review”PLoS One. 2016 Nov 22;11(11):e0165626. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0165626. eCollection 2016.PMID: 27875541 PMCID: PMC5119728 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27875541/
- McKillop DJ, Pentieva K, Daly D, McPartlin JM, Hughes J, Strain JJ, Scott JM, McNulty H.“The effect of different cooking methods on folate retention in various foods that are amongst the major contributors to folate intake in the UK diet.” Br J Nutr. 2002 Dec;88(6):681-8. doi: 10.1079/BJN2002733. PMID: 12493090 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12493090/
- “Pregnancy diet: Focus on these essential nutrients.”https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy-nutrition/art-20045082
- Smith A, Colleen A, Spees C. “Wardlaw’s Contemporary Nutrition, 12th Edition.” McGraw Hill, 2022.