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Why Folic Acid Is Important for Pregnancy

Find out why folic acid is so critical for your developing baby and how to make sure you're getting enough of this key vitamin.

Your body accomplishes incredible feats during pregnancy—and it needs plenty of nutrients to do it. Folic acid is a key vitamin that all expectant moms should load up on. But what is it, and why is it important? Here’s what you need to know about taking folic acid during pregnancy, including the recommended dose and which foods will give you an all-natural folate boost.

In this article:
What is folic acid?
Folic acid benefits
Foods with folate

What Is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is the made-made form of folate, a B vitamin naturally found in many fruits, vegetables and nuts, as well as in certain fortified foods. It helps your system create healthy new red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all the parts of your body—critical for avoiding anemia. Everyone needs folic acid to stay healthy, but it’s especially important during pregnancy.

Folic Acid Benefits

When taken before you conceive and throughout your pregnancy, folic acid (also known as vitamin B9) has been shown to drastically decrease the risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly. In fact, this vitamin is so important for pregnancy, the CDC recommends that every woman of child-bearing age (even if you're not currently in baby-making mode) takes 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, just in case. Since baby's neural tube closes around days 49 to 56 (seven to eight weeks)—which is when many women first realize they're pregnant—you'll be covered if you've already been taking folic acid supplements on a daily basis.

Once you get pregnant, the suggested daily intake jumps to 400 to 800 micrograms. If you have a family history of neural tube defects, you should get even more (usually about 10 times as much), so let your doctor know and she can help determine the correct amount you'll need.

Foods with Folate

So how do you get your necessary folic acid intake? In addition to taking supplements, you can load up on folate-rich foods. This wonder-acid can be found naturally in leafy greens, citrus fruits and some legumes, including spinach, oranges, nuts and beans. Other folate powerhouses include eggs, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, beets, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, berries and more. Plus, since the US government has hopped on the folic acid bandwagon, the vitamin is now added to enriched breads, cereal, pasta, rice and flour. (Finally, a good reason to eat carbs!)

Breakfast foods with folate

  • A bowl of enriched breakfast cereal and half a grapefruit
  • Oatmeal with sliced bananas and flaxseed
  • A banana, mango, strawberry and orange juice smoothie
  • Scrambled eggs with sauteed spinach

Lunch foods with folate

  • A homemade egg salad sandwich on enriched whole-grain bread
  • Spinach salad with oranges, beets, avocado and walnuts
  • Salmon with asparagus and enriched white rice
  • Hummus with enriched pita bread and carrots

Dinner foods with folate

  • Lamb with lentils
  • Enriched pasta with peas and asparagus
  • Chicken with Brussels sprouts and winter squash
  • Black bean burgers with avocado

Even if you're eating many of these foods with folate, you can (and should) up your folic acid intake with a supplement. Most women don’t get nearly enough of this vitamin, and since it’s water-soluble, you’ll just pee out whatever you don’t need.

Updated October 2018

Plus, more from The Bump:

A Healthy Pregnancy Diet: What to Put on Your Grocery List

10 Superfoods to Eat During Pregnancy

Foods That Ease Pregnancy Symptoms