What Is Folate and What Does It Do?
Most vitamins are straightforward about who they are. Vitamins A, C, and D? Easy. Vitamin K? Sure, K1 and K2 complicate matters, but only slightly. The B complex, however, is an asylum of multiple aliases that vary in use. And as you may have guessed by now, folate is one of its inmates.
“Folate is a B vitamin (B9, in fact) that’s present in several green leafy foods,” explains Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Confusing matters further is that folate is itself a group. You’ll likely only ever have to concern yourself with levomefolic acid, the primary biologically active form of folate and folic acid, the latter of which is the synthetic version used in supplements.
Why Do We Need Folate?
Despite getting less attention than some other vitamins, folate is absolutely vital. “Your body needs folate to make DNA and other genetic material, and helps your cells divide correctly,” Hunnes explains.
Folate is also necessary for pregnant women to help support their baby’s development. Some of the earliest symptoms of insufficient folate intake are muscle weakness, persistent fatigue, and lethargy.
How Much Folate Should You Take?
The daily value (DV) of folate for most people over the age of 14 is 400 mcg DFE each day, according to the FDA. “DFE” stands for dietary folate equivalent. It’s used to distinguish between the more easily absorbed version of B9 that’s synthesized for supplements and fortified foods (folic acid) from the kind that naturally occurs in food and is absorbed about half as well (folate).
Hunnes explains that the daily amount of folate needed does depend on age and, situationally, gender. Children need less than adults, and pregnant or lactating women need more than men to help facilitate their child’s growth.
What Are the Benefits of Folate?
Folate serves an important function in the body, helping with proper cell division, DNA health, and gene expression. But here’s what that means for you and your overall health.
Promotes Normal Homocysteine Levels
Folate is required in order for your body to convert homocysteine into methionine, an essential amino acid that your body uses to build proteins. Though lower homocysteine levels have been associated with impaired cardiovascular function, studies show that folate supplements do not lower the risk of heart disease.
Helps Prevent Neural Tube Birth Defects
There are multiple types of neural tube defects, including spina bifida, anencephaly, and encephalocele. All three are serious birth defects that affect the spine or brain. But babies born to women who get adequate folate through dietary intake, supplementation, or a combination of the two have a significantly reduced risk of developing these conditions.
Foods That Naturally Contain Folate
The word “folate” derives from the same Latin root as the word “foliage,” so it stands to reason that leafy greens offer plenty of this vitamin. But there are many other options if you’re not the salad type.
- Leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Asparagus: 70 mcg per 1 cup (18% DV)
- Orange: 39 mcg in 1 medium fruit (10% DV)
- Eggs: 71 mcg per 2 large eggs (18% DV)
- Beets: 148 mcg per 1 cup (37% DV)
Foods that are frequently fortified or enriched with folic acid include:
- Breakfast cereals
- Granola bars
- Protein bars
- White rice
The exact amount of folate per serving and percentage of your daily value may differ by brand.
Risks of Taking Too Much Folate
“It’s difficult to overdose on folate from foods,” Hunnes underscores. So meeting your needs by adding folate-rich foods to your diet is a good option when possible. “It’s easier from a supplement, but may still be difficult,” she adds.
“Folate is water soluble, so it often gets excreted if taken in high doses,” Hunnes explains. The CDC says adults can safely consume up to 1,000 mcg of folate, but lower doses could cause side effects. The most common are gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, gas, stomach upset, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
- Office of Dietary Supplements - Folate ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-Consumer/#h6
- Role of homocysteine in the development of cardiovascular disease www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4326479/
- Optimal Serum and Red Blood Cell Folate Concentrations in Women of Reproductive Age for Prevention of Neural Tube Defects: World Health Organization Guidelines www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6415a5.htm
- FoodData Central Search Results fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/787220/nutrients
- Folic Acid Safety, Interactions, and Effects on Other Outcomes www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/faqs/faqs-safety.html