Folic Acid is Essential to a Healthy Pregnancy

“You’re eating for two now.”

If you’re pregnant, then you may have heard this common trope. But have you heard that what you eat is as important as how much you eat?

Your chances of having a healthy pregnancy and baby—and of conceiving--increase when you eat nutritiously and consume the recommended daily dose folic acid, says Basma S. Faris, M.D., an Obstetrician and Gynecologist at Weill Cornell Medicine Primary Care.

A Healthy Diet During Pregnancy

To eat nutritiously, you need a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables,  whole grains, lean meats, dairy products, and healthy fats, Dr. Faris says. To support a healthy pregnancy or optimize your chances of getting pregnant, you should start eating folate-rich foods, including peas, beans, lentils, asparagus, eggs, and leafy green vegetables, three months before you conceive, she adds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Public Health Service, all women of childbearing age in the United States who could become pregnant should consume 0.4 milligrams of folic acid daily, a B vitamin that helps prevent  birth defects  affecting the brain and spine, also known as neural tube defects (NTD).

Such NTDs include spina bifida and anencephaly. All infants with anencephaly die shortly after birth, while most who are born with spina bifida grow to adulthood, sometimes with paralysis or varying degrees of bowel and bladder incontinence. In addition to protecting against these severe conditions, folic acid protects against other pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia, miscarriage, low birthweight, and stillbirth. It is also necessary for DNA production.

What is folic acid

The terms “folic acid” and “folate” are often used interchangeably, but they refer to slightly different things: folate refers to the many different forms of vitamin B9, while folic acid refers to the synthetic form of folate that is added to supplements  and fortified foods, such as rice, pasta, bread, and some breakfast cereals. Besides taking a daily folic acid supplement before and during pregnancy, you should also eat foods rich in folate. If you have a family history of NTDs, then you may need to increase your  daily folate intake.

Folate is only one of many nutrients that are essential to a healthy pregnancy. If you are planning or trying to conceive, or are already pregnant, then you should also consume plenty of:

  • Iron-critical to the production of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen from the lungs to the entire body; and myoglobin, a protein that delivers oxygen to muscles. It is found in shellfish, spinach, liver, beans, peas, lentils, and red meat.
  • Calcium-vital for bone health, and found in low-fat yogurt, canned salmon, sardines, rice, and cheese.
  • Choline-essential during early pregnancy for fetal brain development and protection against NTDs, and found in eggs, meat, cruciferous vegetables, and peanuts.
  • Zinc-helps ovulation and fertility as well as the proper development of a fetus’s neural tube (central nervous system) and the placenta, and found in meat, shellfish, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and dairy.
  • Vitamin A-important for eye development during the third trimester of pregnancy, and abundant in carrots and sweet potatoes.
  • Omega 3 fats-necessary for neurologic development and as natural anti-inflammatories and found in low-mercury fish and nuts.
  • Vitamin B12-important for neurotransmitter development and found in animal proteins. Vegans may need a B12 supplement.