Are You Taking Folic Acid? Why You Should Be

A new CDC report shows that taking folic acid significantly reduces the risk of birth defects, yet some women still aren't getting enough of this key B vitamin.

Folic Acid and Birth Defects Suphakaln Wongcompune/Shutterstock

Talk about flour power—since the US started fortifying grains with folic acid in 1998, severe birth defects have decreased by 35 percent, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The paper credits the B vitamin with preventing more than 1,300 babies a year from being born with a neural tube defect (NTD), which affect the brain and spine.

"Getting the recommended amount of folic acid is an important way to help prevent serious birth defects," says Jenny Williams, a nurse epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Health officials agree: In 1992, the US Public Health Service advised that all women of childbearing age should regularly consume 400mcg of folic acid. To help meet those requirements, the US Food and Drug Administration required it to be added to enriched grain products, like bread and pasta, in 1998.

Still, about 3,000 pregnancies here in the US will still be affected. Hispanic women are about 20 percent more likely to have a child with an NTD and anyone who's had a previous pregnancy that resulted in a serious birth defect is also at risk, according to the CDC's report.

To help meet your daily intake requirements, Siobhan Dolan, M.D., a March of Dimes medical advisor has some tips.

Start with a good prenatal.

Aim for 600mcg of folic acid daily (your prenatal vitamin should hit the targeted amount) for at least the first three months of pregnancy. If you've had a prior pregnancy that's resulted in an NTD, up your dose of folic acid to 4mg.

Work around your morning sickness.

Often it's the taste of your prenatal vitamin that's making you nauseous, so try one that smells or tastes differently. You can also try a one-a-day chewable pill. A final option if you can't keep it down: Buy a bottle of folic acid tablets. They are small and don't have a strong taste or smell. But you should plan to restart your prenatal vitamin regimen as soon as you can tolerate it.

Boost your intake through diet.

Aside from supplements, there are plenty of foods rich with folate. A few prime picks: lentils, spinach, orange juice, black beans, peanuts, romaine lettuce and broccoli. You can chow down on fortified foods, like bread, pasta and breakfast cereal. Just make sure to check the label to see how much folic acid each serving contains.