Folate is the name for the essential B vitamin folic acid that it is found naturally in foods. Folic acid is the form found in vitamin supplements and fortified foods. Getting enough folate and folic acid is especially important for women of childbearing age to help promote healthy pregnancies and babies.
Eating well with Canada’s Food Guide and taking a daily multivitamin that has 0.4 mg (400 mcg) of folic acid will help you prepare for a healthy pregnancy and is important even if you are not planning to become pregnant.1 This can reduce the risk of your baby developing a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida or anencephaly, if you do become pregnant.
Folate and folic acid are critical during the first four weeks of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant. This B vitamin is vital for the healthy development of baby’s brain, skull and spinal cord in the very early weeks of pregnancy.2 Folic acid also supports growing tissues in baby and mother as well as mother’s expanding blood volume during pregnancy.
The body has a high demand for folate, and women may not get enough of this nutrient during their childbearing years. Folate needs also increase during pregnancy. A Recommended Daily Allowance of 600 mcg (or 0.6 mg) is recommended to help maintain normal folate stores during pregnancy.2
Research shows most Canadian women of childbearing age do not consume enough folate from diet alone to meet their pregnancy needs.3 Over 75% of women aged 19 to 50 (who are not pregnant or breastfeeding) have intakes that are less than the Estimated Average Requirement for pregnancy.
In addition, since pregnancies are not always planned, steps have been taken in Canada to help women of childbearing age get enough folate, by:
• encouraging women to take a daily multivitamin with 0.4 mg folic acid
• mandatory fortification of white flour, enriched pasta and enriched corn meal
with folic acid
• promoting Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide
Folic acid supplementation and food fortification have helped to greatly lower the number of babies born with neural tube defects in the last 20 years. Research also confirms that eating a healthy diet that includes foods rich in nutrients such as folate can also help to lower the risk of birth defects.4
Folate-rich foods are among some of the most nutritious foods. You can enjoy a healthy variety of nutritious foods that contain folate by Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide. The following foods will provide you with some of the folate you need for a healthy pregnancy:
• leafy green vegetables such as spinach and romaine lettuce
• vegetables such as asparagus, avocado, beats, broccoli, Brussels
sprouts, baby carrots, cauliflower, corn, green peas, parsnips and okra
• citrus fruits and juices such as oranges, orange juice, pineapple juice and
• berries such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries
• legumes such as lentils, dried beans and peas
• eggs (some eggs are also enhanced with additional folic acid)
• nuts and seeds such as peanuts, almonds, walnuts and sunflower
• breads made with enriched wheat flour or enriched corn flour
• pasta made with enriched wheat flour
• cereals that are enriched and ready to eat
*Note: White flour, enriched pasta, and enriched corn meal are fortified with folic acid in Canada. This has been mandatory in Canada since 1998.
Eating well and choosing nutritious foods can help you meet your needs for folate and other nutrients to promote optimal health. Keep in mind that it is especially important for all women of childbearing age to take a multivitamin with 0.4 mg of folic acid, in addition to the folate you get from foods.
If you do become pregnant, it is also important to continue to eat a healthy diet with folate-rich foods and take a multivitamin with 0.4 mg of folic acid while you are pregnant as well as while you are breast feeding your baby.
1. Health Canada. Prenatal Nutrition Guidelines for Health Professionals - Folate Contributes to a Healthy Pregnancy. Available at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/pubs/nutrition/folate-eng.php (Accessed October 10, 2011).
2. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin and Choline. Washington DC: National Academies Press, 1998.
3. Health Canada. 2008. Canadian Community Health Survey, Cycle 2.2, Nutrition (2004) - Nutrient Intakes from Food, Volume 2. Cat.: H164-45/2-2008E-PDF.
4. Carmichael SL et al. Reduced risks of neural tube defects and orofacial clefts with higher diet quality. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med Oct. 3, 2011; (E-pub ahead of print).