Nutrition for pregnancy: Folic acid

An important nutrient for women of childbearing age.

Folic acid is an important nutrient for women of childbearing age, since it is essential for healthy cell division. Sufficient levels of folic acid in a woman’s body at the time of conception and in the early weeks of pregnancy have been shown to reduce the incidence of babies developing neural tube defects like spina bifida.

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Fortification: A Canadian Success Story
Since 1998, most of Canada’s cereal grain products have been fortified with folic acid. It is estimated that fortification provides an additional 0.2 mg of folic acid to most of the population. According to a recent study published in The Lancet, the Canadian program has reduced the incidence of neural tube defects by 50 percent. Toronto-based researchers assessed the medical histories of over 300,000 women during six years before and six years after fortification began. Researchers also say that adding folic acid to cereal products has proven much more effective than relying on supplementation in tablet form before conception. A daily dose of 0.3 to 0.4 mg of folic acid over several months has been shown to reduce neural tube defects by 30 to 40 percent. More study is needed to determine if higher levels of fortification would be beneficial, according to the researchers.

Folic Acid May Help Prevent Miscarriage
A Swedish study reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who had healthy levels of folic acid in their blood were less likely to have a miscarriage.

Fortification of cereals and breads with folic acid has not been introduced in Sweden, where the study was conducted. The researchers compared folic acid levels of 468 women who had miscarried before the 20th week of pregnancy with 921 women who had not miscarried. They found that women with low levels of the vitamin had a 50 percent increased risk of miscarriage.

Talk to your doctor about whether you should take a folic acid supplement if you are trying to get pregnant. Many foods, especially orange juice, green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, and nuts and seeds are excellent dietary sources of folic acid.

More Good News About Folic Acid
Research has shown that fortification of foods with folic acid, introduced in Canada in 1997 to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects such as spina bifida, has another unexpected benefit.

Researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) and the University of Toronto have found a 60 percent reduction in the incidence of neuroblastoma since 1997, when mandatory fortification of flour began in Canada. Neuroblastoma is a deadly childhood cancer that has affected one in 6,000 to 7,000 children in North America since fortification began.

The study was undertaken when a number of HSC oncologists noticed a decrease in new cases of neuroblastoma. “Our research indicates that this is the first paediatric cancer that can be prevented through maternal diet,” said Dr. Gideon Koren, the study’s principal investigator and director of HSC’s Motherisk program.

Eat these foods to up your folic acid intake:
• Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli
• Corn and cornmeal
• Nuts and seeds
• Dried peas, beans and lentils
• Oranges
• Fortified breads and cereals