Before I became pregnant, folate wasn’t a top priority—and for many, that’s often the case. Folate tends to fly under the radar up until pregnancy. It’s only then that healthcare practitioners emphasize the importance of folate (and its cousin, folic acid). After all, folate and folic acid support a growing baby’s brain and spinal cord. More on that, below. At any rate, folate is essential. Beyond its necessity for pregnancy, we need folate on a daily basis. So, let’s take a closer look at folate, what it is, why we need it, and the foods that are high in folate so we can get more of it.
What Is Folate and Why Do I Need It?
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9. It’s found in food. A water-soluble vitamin, it has many important functions in the body. In particular, it supports proper fetal growth, reduces the risk of birth defects, and aids in healthy red blood cell division. Folate helps form DNA, RNA, and is involved in protein metabolism. It plays a key role in breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that can be harmful in disproportionate amounts. In essence, your body needs folate in order to make DNA and other genetic material.
Where Can I Get Folate?
Folate, aka vitamin B9, is naturally found in many foods—both plant-based and animal-derived. For example, folate is present in dark, leafy green vegetables, legumes, beans, and nuts. Fruits rich in folate include oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries. A type of folate is also found in the form of man-made foods, like cereals, pastas, and supplements. This is where folic acid comes into play.
How Much Folate Do I Need?
The amount of folate you need depends on your age. It also depends on whether or not you’re trying to conceive (or are pregnant). If you’re over 19 years old, you should aim for 400 mcg DFE. However, pregnant and lactating women require 600 mcg DFE and 500 mcg DFE, respectively. Additionally, those who regularly drink alcohol should aim for at least 600 mcg DFE of folate. Their needs are slightly higher as alcohol can impair folate’s absorption. As always, consult with your physician about your body’s needs.
For a bit of context, the Recommended Dietary Allowance for folate is listed as micrograms of Dietary Folate Equivalents (DFE). And folate equivalents refers to both folate and folic acid. In essence, the measure of mcg DFE is used because your body absorbs more folic acid from fortified foods and dietary supplements than folate found naturally in foods. In comparison to folate, you actually need less folic acid to get your recommended amount. To put that into perspective, 400 mcg of folate and 240 mcg of folic acid are both equal to 400 mcg DFE. Capiche?
Signs of Folate Deficiency
Folate deficiency is often called “folate deficiency anemia (or folic acid deficiency),” and it’s caused by a lack of dietary folate. It means you have lower-than-normal amounts of folic acid, a type of B vitamin, in your blood. How does it happen? A few ways: If you have an unbalanced and unhealthy diet, regularly misuse alcohol, and / or follow a fad diet that does not involve eating good sources of folate. Luckily, it is treatable by a medical professional and typically resolves itself within one month. The symptoms of folate deficiency are often subtle, but they include:
- Tongue swelling
- Mouth sores
- Premature gray hair
- Growth issues
Health Effects of Low Folate
Although studies are still undergoing, current research shows that low levels of folate can cause the following:
- Neural tube defects: Taking folic acid (and consuming folate) before becoming pregnant and during early pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects in babies. Neural tube defects are major birth defects in a baby’s brain or spine.
- Cancer: Folate that is naturally present in food may decrease the risk of several forms of cancer. But folate supplements might have different effects on cancer risk depending on how much the person takes and when. More research is needed to understand the roles of dietary folate and folic acid supplements in cancer risk.
- Depression: People with low blood levels of folate might be more likely to have depression. In addition, they might not respond as well to antidepressant treatment as people with normal folate levels. Folate supplements, particularly those that contain methylfolate (5-methyl-THF), might make antidepressant medications more effective. However, more research is needed to better understand the role of folate in depression.
- Heart disease and stroke: Folic acid supplements lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that’s linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Supplements don’t directly decrease the risk of heart disease, but some studies have shown that a combination of folic acid with other B-vitamins, however, helps prevent stroke.
- Preterm birth: Taking folic acid might reduce the risk of having a premature baby or a baby with birth defects, such as certain types of heart problems. But more research is needed to understand how folic acid affects the risk of these conditions.
Folate for a Healthy Pregnancy
As mentioned, folate and folic acid are important for pregnancy because they can help prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida. Furthermore, folate prevents certain heart abnormalities, cleft palate and cleft lip. It also lowers the risk of developing anemia, miscarriage, preterm delivery, and low birth weight. Folate is available in multivitamins and prenatal vitamins, an important part of pre-conception and the entirety of pregnancy. In fact, folate is essential for breastfeeding moms too.
In dietary supplements, folate is usually in the form of folic acid, but methylfolate (5-methyl-THF) is also used. Dietary supplements containing methylfolate might be better than folic acid for individuals who have a certain mutation in a gene called MTHFR. With that particular gene mutation, bodies can use this methylfolate more easily than folic acid. If you are trying to get pregnant, consider getting your genes tested to determine if you have the MTHFR genetic variation. This will give you the power to make informed choices about your unique nutritional needs, including whether or not you should choose prenatal and fertility supplements that contain the active, methylfolate form of folic acid.
Folate Vs. Folic Acid—What’s the Difference?
Often used interchangeably, folate and folic acid are two different compounds. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Available as a nutritional supplement, folic acid is the lab-made form of folate (vitamin B9). As mentioned, both folate and folic acid are necessary for making and maintaining healthy cells in the body. Some prenatal vitamins contain folate and most contain folic acid. At any rate, they’re an essential component of prenatal vitamins.
In terms of which is better, typically dietary folate is a safer option than folic acid. After all, excessive unmetabolized folic acid can cause several health issues. Nonetheless, if your doctor has prescribed folic acid for certain health conditions, that’s likely because your body may not be met by dietary folate alone.
15 Foods High in Folate
If you’re eating a wide variety of plant and / or animal-based foods, you’re likely getting enough folate. Folate is naturally present in many ingredients, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas, seafood, eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and grains. Spinach, liver, and asparagus, are among the foods with the highest folate levels.
Back in 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to add 140 mcg folic acid/100 g to enriched breads, cereals, flours, pastas, rice, and other grain products. This was, in part, to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Because cereals and grains are widely consumed in America, these products have become important contributors of folic acid to the American diet. Beyond processed foods, these are 15 whole foods high in folate:
- Brussels sprouts
- Wheat germ
Best Recipes With Folate
Bright and delicious, this avocado pesto pasta is packed with fresh herbs, creamy avocado, and nutritional yeast for a totally healthy and plant-based sauce. One-half of a raw avocado contains 82 mcg of folate, or about 21% of the amount you need for the entire day.
Cheesy Roasted Garlic Asparagus by Cafe Delites
Topped with mozzarella cheese, this asparagus dish is the perfect way to get your veggies in. Even non-asparagus fans love this recipe. Low-carb and keto, it’s delicious alongside roasted or grilled chicken, fish, or veggie-packed pasta. A half-cup (90-gram) serving of cooked asparagus contains about 134 mcg of folate, or 34% of the DV.
Chunky Monkey Banana Baked Oatmeal by Ambitious Kitchen
This chunky monkey banana baked oatmeal is packed with healthy fats from coconut and walnuts. This easy, healthy banana baked oatmeal recipe is freezer-friendly and naturally sweetened for the perfect breakfast! Add chocolate chips to make it extra special. Plus, one medium banana can supply 23.6 mcg of folate, or 6% of the DV.
Beet Hummus by Waves In The Kitchen
A vibrantly pink, this slightly sweet and healthy beet hummus is super simple to make and equally versatile. The addition of a roasted beet adds a touch of sweet earthiness and a fun twist to classic hummus. Beets are high in nitrates and folate, and cup (136 grams) of raw beets contains 37% of your DV for folate.
These salmon tacos are a prime example of how simple ingredients can create a healthy, delicious, and easy-to-prepare weeknight dinner. Not to mention they get bonus points for being gluten and dairy-free, and are packed with nourishing, plant-based ingredients. Broccoli, especially when cooked, is rich in folate. One cup (91 grams) of raw broccoli provides 14% of the DV, while one-half cup (78 grams) of cooked broccoli can supply 21% of your daily needs.
Lemon Thyme Brussels Sprouts by A Food Centric Life
Lemon thyme brussels sprouts are a light and flavorful side dish. Simply cook in a little olive oil until browned on one side, finish with broth, herbs, lemon zest and if desired, finely grated parm. Brussels sprouts contain a good number of antioxidants and micronutrients. One-half cup (78 grams) of cooked Brussels sprouts provides about 12% of the DV for folate.
Egg Salad by Downshiftology
This is the classic egg salad recipe that can be eaten plain with a fork or turned into a delicious sandwich (or wrap). You just need hard boiled eggs, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, red onion and fresh herbs for a quick recipe that’s nourishing and loaded with flavor. Adding eggs to your diet is a great way to boost your intake of several essential nutrients, including folate. One large egg packs 22 mcg of folate, or approximately 6% of the DV.
Blueberry Flax Superfood Smoothie by Fit Foodie Finds
Blend up this refreshing blueberry flax superfood smoothie for breakfast during the week. It is fiber0packed from the flaxseed, protein-packed from the Greek yogurt, and perfectly sweet from the blueberries. One ounce of flax seeds contains about 24 mcg of folate, or 6% of the DV.
This soup is made completely in one pot, so clean-up is a breeze. Prep it on a Sunday so it can be quickly rewarmed for an effortless dinner during the week. It’s hearty, comforting, and satiating—the best of all worlds. Although the exact amount of folate in legumes can vary, they’re an excellent source of folate. One cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils contains 358 mcg of folate, which is 90% of the DV.
Cajun Oven-Roasted Okra Fries by The Defined Dish
These cajun oven-roasted okra fries with lemon-garlic aioli are absolutely delicious. Dipped in chilled, lemon-garlic aioli, they are the perfect party appetizer or side dish (especially in the summer). Once cup of cooked okra contains 74 mcg of folate.
This California navel orange salad with avocados and a citrus vinaigrette is a simple yet delicious salad bursting with orange flavor. Besides their popular flavor, oranges pack a big nutritional punch. We all know oranges are high in vitamin C—they’re the go-to fruit when you want to support your immune system. However, they’re also a good source of fiber and folate. Just one large orange contains 55 mcg of folate, or about 14% of the DV.
This healthy papaya bowl recipe is the most refreshing snack or breakfast. No cooking needed and very easy to make, it’s loaded with energizing, tropical ingredients. Along with vitamin C and antioxidants, one cup (140 grams) of raw papaya contains 53 mcg of folate, which is equal to about 13% of the DV.
A healthy, budget-friendly meal that’s full of flavor, packed with protein, and just happens to be vegan? Sign me up. Though it sounds fancy, this is one of the easiest recipes to make with just a few ingredients. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and arugula are rich in vitamins and minerals, including folate. One cup (30 grams) of raw spinach provides 58.2 mcg, or 15% of the DV.
Walnut-Crusted Salmon by Rachel Cooks
This walnut crusted salmon sheet pan dinner is going to be your next dinner home run. It’s full of fall flavors and super easy for a busy weeknight. Sheet pan dinners are so underrated, and they typically require minimal prep time. This recipe is packed with folate, including walnuts as a source. One ounce (28 grams) of walnuts contains about 28 mcg of folate.
Chocolate Chip Wheat Germ Cookies by Beyond Kimchee
These chocolate chip wheat germ cookies are irresistibly crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. They are a wholesome yet indulgent treat. Just one ounce (28 grams) of wheat germ provides 78.7 mcg of folate, which equals about 20% of your daily folate needs. Wheat germ also contains a substantial amount of fiber.