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Folic acid can give babies a healthier start

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By Greg Summers

It does take a little extra effort for a mother-to-be to eat healthy, but it has its benefits for her and the baby she's carrying. After all, she is eating for two.

One of the most important nutrients pregnant women need is folic acid, a B-vitamin that is needed to ensure proper cell growth. It helps the neural tube (the part of the developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord) develop properly.

According to the American Public Health Association, research shows that adequate consumption of folic acid during pregnancy reduces the risk of brain defects and nerve disorders by 70 percent.

Birth defects affect one in every 33 babies born in the United States each year and are the leading cause of infant death in South Carolina according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Major defects are found in 3 percent of live born infants and 15-20 percent of stillborn infants.

Yet, research shows that 65 percent of women don't get enough folic acid. It's especially true among Latino women in the United States, who have up to three times the risk of delivering babies with neural tube defects versus non-Latino women.

"People just aren't aware of what foods you can get folic acid from," said Megan Hepp, clinical dietitian at Springs Memorial Hospital. "Along with calcium, this is one of those things that are good for all women."

Folic acid also reduces the risks of other birth defectslike cleft lip, cleft palate and heart defects.

According to the March of Dimes, studies have shown that folic acid may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and colon, breast and cervical cancer.

In 1998, the FDA started requiring food manufacturers to add folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, pastas, rice and other grain products to increase the synthetic intake in folic acid throughout the population.

The right foods

The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily by taking a multivitamin and eating fortified grains and a variety of foods as part of a healthy diet.

Once a woman finds out she's pregnant, Hepp said her folic acid intake should be increased to between 600 and 800 micrograms per day.

"It's especially important during periods of rapid cell development to replicate DNA," Hepp said.

Nearly all brand-name and generic multivitamins contain the recommended daily allowance of folic acid. While that might be the easiest way to get it, Hepp recommends doing it through a proper diet.

"I have always been a firm believer of getting it from food whenever possible," Hepp said. "Fortified cereals are an excellent choice."

Many foods – especially fruits and vegetables – are good sources of folic acid.

Good choices include dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach, turnip greens and collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beets, green beans, root vegetables, asparagus, corn and Brussels sprouts.

Other foods that are good sources of folic acid are dried beans and peas, nuts, sunflower seeds, lentils, beef liver and chicken liver, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, wheat germ and whole wheat bread.

Fruits like cantaloupe, grapefruit, strawberries, bananas, kiwi and orange juice and pineapple juice are also good sources of folic acid.

"You want to make sure and get the correct amount, too, within a balanced diet," Hepp said.

"One serving of chicken liver a day can give 770 micrograms of folic acid, but a slice of fortified bread only has about 35 micrograms."

Contact Greg Summersat 283-1156 orgsummers@thelancasternews.com