Folate For Families

It’s well known in health circles that women need to get enough folate before and during pregnancy. However, sometimes the important role of folate in protecting against neural tube defects in the newborn can overshadow the fact that folate is important to everyone in the family, not just mum.

So what role does folate play in keeping everyone in the family healthy?

Folate for dad

Folate plays a role in the production of healthy sperm 410 and two reviews have suggested a number of mechanisms warranting further investigation that may explain sub-fertility in men 411. Clinical evidence of folate’s possible role in reversing sub-fertility is mixed, and any underlying mechanisms are not clear 412. Two double-blind, controlled intervention studies have found good results when folate was combined with zinc 413,414; both studies measured a significant increase in sperm count in sub-fertile men supplemented with folate and zinc together. More research is needed, but good nutrition, including getting enough folate, is important in both men and women trying to conceive.

Folate is also important when it comes to the health of blood cells. It works together with vitamin B12 to allow the development of healthy blood cells in the bone marrow 415. A deficiency of either of these two B-group vitamins results in megaloblastic changes in the marrow and eventually macrocytic anaemia 415.

Symptoms of anaemia include weakness, fatigue, irritability and palpitations 415.

Folate for kids

Kids also need folate for healthy blood cells, just as adults do 415. But folate is important in rapidly dividing cells for the synthesis of DNA, so not only it is essential in a developing foetus, but also in the healthy growth and development of infants and children. Ensuring kids get enough folate can be difficult, especially in picky eaters.

Folate for mum… all the time

Folate, because of its importance in rapidly dividing cells, has a key role in early pregnancy in protecting against neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in the newborn 415. Ensuring mum gets adequate folate from food, and usually also supplements of folic acid, prior to conception and during pregnancy can prevent many cases of neural tube defects. Some evidence suggests that sufficient folate may help protect against other congenital abnormalities,416,417 such as of the heart, and possibly even a range of other problems that can arise in pregnancy 412,418. Overall, the importance of sufficient folate and good nutrition before and during pregnancy can’t be overstated. The RDI for folate during pregnancy is 600µg per day 415. This can be made up of 400µg of supplementary folic acid a day, with the remaining 200ug made up through the diet. Women planning a pregnancy, or those who might become pregnant, and also women who are pregnant need 400ug at least, coming into the first trimester 415.

Adequate folate intake during breastfeeding is also important. Evidence suggests that maintaining the folate levels in breastmilk for the baby is given priority over the mother’s folate needs 412. During lactation, the RDI for folate is increased from 400µg per day to 500µg 415.

But women need enough folate even when they’re not planning a pregnancy or when they have left their baby days behind. It’s an important B-group vitamin for healthy blood cells and growth of tissues, as well as other biochemical processes in the body.

What else might folate be important for?

As our knowledge of folate’s role in the body and its metabolism grows, new areas of investigation open up. There may be a role for folate in vascular disease, inflammation, some cancers (for example, colorectal cancers) and even mental health conditions, such as depression. The evidence for all these hypotheses is interesting but inconclusive and more research is needed 417.

Why the fuss about enough folate?

Folate is found in many foods, but most don’t feature heavily in typical diets. It’s found in spinach, broccoli, dark leafy greens, and other plant foods, but many people don’t eat enough, and many kids are fussy eaters who don’t like the foods that are highest in folate.

Avocados are a good source of folate, containing around 70µg in half an avocado – that’s a good contributor to the recommended daily amount. Plus: avocados are versatile, easy to prepare, well-liked (even by the kids), and the basis of many popular dishes, so can really help to boost intakes for everyone in the family. Avocados are the other green vegetable rich in folate and worth remembering.


Author: Lisa Yates, Consultant Dietitian Adv APD
Lisa Yates is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian with 16 years experience in nutrition, communications, clinical practice, as well as strategy development and implementation.

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