Folate for women of childbearing age

Folate is a B-group vitamin which is especially important for women of childbearing age. Adequate intake of this vitamin has been shown to reduce the chance of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida in newborn babies.

What is folate and why is it important?

Folate, also known as folic acid, is a B-group vitamin that is essential for good health. It is important for normal growth and development, especially in unborn babies where it helps the nervous system develop. An adequate intake of folate is essential a month prior to pregnancy and during the first three months of pregnancy.

During the early stages of pregnancy, growth of the baby is rapid. In the first four to six weeks of pregnancy, the neural tube closes and fuses. The neural tube later becomes the baby’s brain and spinal cord. A diet deficient in folate can increase the chances of the neural tube not closing properly, which can result in a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida.

Where can I find folate?

Folate can be found in two forms, either as folate or folic acid. Folate is the naturally occurring form and is found in:

  • Green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, broccoli and asparagus)
  • Fruits (such as strawberries, oranges and bananas)
  • Legumes (such as chickpeas, beans and lentils).

Folic acid is a form of folate that is added to foods, such as cereal and cereal-based products and some fruit juices. Always check the ingredient panel to make sure that these foods have the added folic acid in them as not all cereals and fruit juices are fortified with folic acid.

It is now mandatory for all wheat flour used for bread making in Australia to contain folic acid. This means that all breads (except organic bread) are fortified with folic acid. The addition of folic acid to bread will help women reach their recommended intake of folate. As a guide, three slices of fortified bread will provide around 120 micrograms of folic acid.

The fortification of bread with folic acid is based on the best scientific evidence available. This evidence currently shows no adverse health effects at the levels of folic acid that will be present in fortified bread. If you are concerned about your intake of folic acid, visit your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian for advice.

How much folate do I need?

Women of childbearing age should consume 400 micrograms of folate per day. These requirements increase during pregnancy to 600 micrograms per day. Most women don’t get enough folate from their diet, therefore it is recommended that pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy take a folic acid supplement. As well as taking a supplement it’s also important to consume foods that are high in folate. This will help ensure you meet the recommended intake each day.

Some women may be at higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect and may need higher amounts of folate. Your GP is the best person to determine your individual risk. Common reasons for increased risk include already having a baby with a neural tube defect or having a family history of neural tube defects.

Tips to get enough folate in your diet

The best ways to make sure you are getting enough folate before and during pregnancy are to:

• Take a supplement. The tablet form of folate is called folic acid and is available from pharmacies. You should ask your GP what dose of folic acid would be right for you.

• Eat foods naturally high in folate such as asparagus, spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli, oranges, bananas and strawberries.

• Eat foods supplemented with folic acid such as bread, some breakfast cereals (look for the words ‘high in folate’ on the packaging) and if you already drink juice, choose those fortified with folic acid.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian can tell you if you are getting enough folate from your diet and help you to make dietary changes to meet your folate targets. This will help to ensure that your diet is healthy both before and during pregnancy.