Most of us know the prenatal perks of folic acid: Taking this B vitamin during early pregnancy helps prevent serious brain and spinal cord defects in developing babies.
However, new research suggests that it may help prevent autism, too. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who take folic acid, or folate, before and during their pregnancy are 40 percent less likely to have an autistic baby.
Even if you’re not in baby-making mode, that’s no reason to forego folic acid. Vitamin B9, as it’s also known, prevents birth defects only when taken at least a month before getting pregnant and during the first few weeks of pregnancy (before a woman usually knows she’s pregnant). Because nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it's important that all women get their folic acid fix -- even if they’re not planning on expanding their family any time soon.
Besides the bonuses it can provide a baby, folic acid does your body good, too. You need it to produce red blood cells, prevent anemia and keep your DNA (the building blocks of your cells) functioning properly.
Only about 25 percent of women get the recommended amount of 400 mcg of folic acid a day. Telltale signs that you might not be getting enough: gray hair, mouth sores, gingivitis and fatigue.
Here’s how to get the recommended daily allowance.
Supplement your diet
Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant require 600 mcg of folic acid a day. Everyone else needs 400 mcg. The easiest and most surefire way to get your daily dose of folic acid: take a multivitamin, says registered dietitian Sarah Krieger MPH, RD, LD/N, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I tell any girl or woman who has the chance of becoming pregnant to take a regular multivitamin,” she says. If you have a hard time remembering your pills, try taking them at the same time every day, like when you’re brushing your teeth.
Do it with food
If you’re not the vitamin-taking type, you may be able to get the folic acid you need by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, cautions Krieger, because the body doesn’t store folic acid, it’s one of those vitamins that needs to be replenished daily.
According to Krieger, many brands of breakfast cereal are fortified with folic acid. Many healthy cereals offer 100 percent of your daily folic acid needs. Enriched flour, bread, and pasta products may also contain folic acid; check the nutrition labels to be sure.
You can also get your folic acid fix by eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Some of the best sources include leafy greens like spinach and romaine lettuce; legumes, like beans, lentils and peanuts; asparagus; broccoli; liver; orange juice and tomato juice.
Here’s an example of what one day’s worth of folate (400 mcg) looks like:
- Half a cup of cooked spinach (33%) or half a cup of black beans (32%)
- One cup of orange juice (11%) or one ounce of dry-roasted peanuts (10%)
- Half a cup of cooked asparagus (17%) or half a cup of chopped broccoli, cooked (20%)
- One serving of romaine lettuce (29%) or one-quarter cup of hummus (26%)
- One cup of diced cantaloupe (8%) or one small orange (7%)