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Why Is Folate Essential During Pregnancy?

One of the most exciting and bewildering times of a woman’s life can be finding out for the first time that you are pregnant. To know a new life is growing inside you, and to be acutely aware that what you eat now not only affects you but your baby.

Good nutrition is very important, even before conception, because it is in the early days of conception that the baby’s brain and spinal cord develops from the neural tube, and this often happens before you’re even aware you’re expecting.

Folate is an essential nutrient needed in neural tube development and it is recommended that all women of child bearing age consume 400 micrograms of folate per day, at least one month before and three months after conceiving(245).  This ensures that if you should fall pregnant unexpectedly, the baby’s neural tube forms correctly, preventing neural tube defects such as spina bifida. In general, pregnant women need 500-600ug folate DFE during pregnancy and while breastfeeding(245).

Folate is the commonly used name given to folic acid and its derivatives.  In general, folate is what is used to describe the nutrient that is found naturally in food, and folic acid is the form added to foods or found in supplements.  Folate is needed to help cells divide, which explains why pregnant women need more folate to help an embryo become a foetus and a foetus become a perfectly formed baby.

The folate found in food is only half as well absorbed into the body as folic acid supplements, so to help determine food folate levels, folate is measured and calculated as dietary folate equivalents (DFEs) to take into consideration the less available food folate(245).

Mums will already know the importance of green leafy vegetables as a source of folate.  But did you know that avocado is the other “green” which can provide folate? Just half an avocado (120g) provides 144ug folate DFE which is a third of the recommended amount women of childbearing age need to consume each day, or a quarter of what a pregnant and breastfeeding mum needs(246).  Including half an avocado in your folate-rich diet means supplements may not be necessary.  However, if your diet isn’t balanced, then folic acid and iron supplements are essential.

Below is a simple pregnancy meal plan for a 30 year old woman with a healthy body weight and activity, in her first trimester.  In general, the meal plan provides enough energy, protein and fibre, contains low GI carbs and little processed food, as well as foods fortified with extra nutrients such as milk, and is based on whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and avocado. While this one day plan includes a fish meal and a red meat meal, it is still lacking in iron so an iron supplement is needed.

This meal plan provides:

  • Energy 9400kJ
  • Protein 152g
  • Total fat 86g (27% saturated fat)
  • Total carbohydrate 207g
  • Total sugars 127g (natural and added)
  • Dietary fibre 28g
  • 2.7L fluids
  • More than 100% RDI or AI for pregnant woman for:
  • Vitamins: A, B1, B2, B3, C, D, E
  • Folate
  • Minerals: Calcium, Iodine, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc
  • Omega 3s – short chain
  • 65% of RDI for iron requirement so an iron supplement will be needed
  • Source: Foodworks software, Xyris

 Remember to enjoy this exciting time of your life and include enough folate in your diet to give your baby the best head-start in life!

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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