Last update: June 11, 2024

8 minute read

What is Folate?

Unleash the benefits of folate, your guide to understanding this essential vitamin. Dive into foods rich in folate, its health benefits, and recommended amounts.

Stephanie Wright

By Stephanie Wright, RN, BSN

Edited by Dr. Jacquie Leone, NMD, HN

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Have you ever wondered how one little nutrient could have a huge impact on your health? Well, let's talk about it. The star of our show today is a water-soluble vitamin that's essential to several key bodily functions, from forming DNA and RNA to protein metabolism. So grab a cup of tea, sit back, and let's journey together into the world of this critical nutrient.

Key takeaways

  • Folate is a water-soluble vitamin, crucial for DNA and RNA formation and protein metabolism
  • It supports the prevention of things like neural tube defects and supports brain function
  • A variety of foods, including green leafy vegetables, beans, peanuts, and shellfish, are rich in folate

    What is folate?

    Folate, also known as Vitamin B9, is a water-soluble vitamin that's naturally found in many foods, and it's also sold as a supplement in the form of folic acid. It's responsible for forming DNA and RNA, playing a key role in protein metabolism, and it's absolutely essential during periods of rapid growth, like pregnancy and fetal development.

    Why is folate essential to your health?

    Folate, or Vitamin B9, is a powerhouse of a nutrient, holding an irreplaceable role in your bodily functions. One of the most vital roles of folate is its involvement in the formation of DNA and RNA, which is fundamental to your very existence. It's also engaged in protein metabolism, effectively helping your body use the protein you consume.

    How does folate affect your amino acid levels?

    One of the less-known but significantly crucial roles of folate is breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that can cause problems if too much accumulates. While amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and, therefore, essential, it's a delicate balance.

    Having too much homocysteine can lead to harmful effects on the body, including heart disease and stroke. By helping to break down homocysteine, folate plays a protective role in your body.

    Is folate important during periods of rapid growth?

    Absolutely! Folate is especially critical during periods of rapid growth, like pregnancy and fetal development. This nutrient helps produce healthy red blood cells, which are essential for carrying oxygen around the body and ensuring the healthy growth of tissues and organs.

    Proper amounts of folate may also help prevent birth defects known as neural cord defects (like spina bifida, a malformation of the spinal cord/column) in the early weeks of pregnancy.

    How much folate should you take?

    When it comes to the recommended intake of folate, it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for men and women over 19 years of age is 400 mcg of dietary folate equivalents (DFE) per day.

    However, for pregnant or breastfeeding women, the recommended intake is higher, at 600 mcg and 500 mcg DFE per day, respectively. If you're someone who enjoys a drink or two, it's important to aim for at least 600 mcg DFE of folate daily, as alcohol might reduce its absorption.

    But remember, while folate is essential, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing! The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) – the maximum daily dose unlikely to cause side effects – is set at 1,000 mcg per day for adults.

    In the world of nutritional supplements, finding the right balance is key. It's important to remember that while supplements can help fill nutritional gaps, they're not meant to replace a healthy, balanced diet. It’s always recommended to add a variety of folate-rich foods to your diet, alongside any supplements you might take.

    These can be a good source of folate, particularly for people who might struggle to meet their recommended daily intake from food alone. Remember that folic acid, the form used in supplements and fortified foods, is better absorbed by your body – a whopping 85% compared to 50% from food sources.

    VitaRx Tip

    As with all supplements, they should be taken in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

    What effect does folate have on your health?

    Folate isn't just another nutrient on the list; it can have some substantial effects on your health, including potential protection against several serious conditions.

    How does folate help prevent neural tube defects?

    During the early stages of pregnancy, folate plays a crucial role in supporting the prevention neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies. NTDs can lead to abnormalities in the brain, spine, or spinal cord of the newborn. By consuming the recommended amount of folate before and during pregnancy (especially during the first few weeks), women might reduce the risk of having a baby with NTDs.

    What's the link between folate and heart disease?

    There's also a link between folate and heart health. Elevated levels of homocysteine in your blood might increase the risk of heart disease.

    By helping break down homocysteine, folate helps maintain a healthy heart. Also, avoiding foods like red meat and dairy that raise homocysteine levels can help in addition to increasing folate intake.

    How can you make sure you're getting enough folate?

    Now that you learned the nitty-gritty details about folate, the big question remains: How can you make sure you're getting enough of it?

    Are you consuming folate-rich foods?

    The first line of defense is, of course, food. Whether you're whipping up a delicious bowl of spinach and broccoli salad, or preparing a delightful peanut butter and banana sandwich, these foods can be a fantastic part of your diet.

    You might be wondering where to get your daily dose of folate. It's found in many foods, but remember that the form of folate found in supplements and fortified foods, known as folic acid, is better absorbed by your body.

    Many foods naturally contain folate. Some of the best sources include:

    • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and Brussels sprouts
    • Beans and peanuts
    • Sunflower seeds
    • Fresh fruits and fruit juices
    • Whole grains
    • Liver
    • Aquatic foods like shellfish
    • Eggs

    How about fortified foods?

    As we mentioned earlier, many food items are fortified with folic acid. This can be an excellent way to supplement your diet and make sure that you're getting enough folate, even if your consumption of naturally folate-rich foods is a bit on the low side.

    Should supplements be considered?

    If you're still having trouble getting your daily dose of folate, that's where supplements come in. Supplements are a simple and effective way to ensure you're getting enough folate, especially if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Just remember not to exceed the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) of 1,000 mcg per day for adults.

    Back in 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required food manufacturers to add folic acid to foods commonly eaten, including breads, cereals, pasta, rice, and other grain products. This initiative was designed to increase the average folic acid intake and reduce the risk of neural tube defects in newborns.

    Including a mix of natural food sources and fortified foods can help ensure you're getting enough folate in your diet. And if you're struggling to meet your daily intake, folic acid supplements can be a useful addition.

    It's important to understand that while they can be a practical solution for boosting nutrient intake, supplements aren't a substitute for a balanced diet. This is why, alongside any supplements, I always recommend aiming for a variety of folate-rich foods to nourish your body from the inside out.

    Final thoughts

    We've learned the truth about folate and left no leaf unturned...except maybe for the spinach in your fridge waiting to be your next folate-rich snack! Remember, your body needs folate to function at its best, and with a little awareness and thoughtful meal planning, you'll be doing the 'Folate Fandango' in no time.



    Stephanie Wright avatar

    Stephanie brings over 13 years of diverse nursing experience to the table, having honed her expertise in critical care, mental health, and utilization management. Her journey as a registered nurse across these various healthcare sectors underscores her adaptability and deep commitment to patient care.

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     Dr. Jacquie Leone avatar

    Dr. Leone holds a BA in Psychology, a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine, and board certification in holistic nutrition. In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Leone has developed and currently teaches science and nutrition courses for a nationally accredited institution. She specializes in chronic illness, gastrointestinal dysregulation, inflammatory conditions, and mental health. Her unique approach combines the wisdom of Eastern medicine with the technology and science of Western medicine, offering an integrative approach heavily focused on functional medicine.

    At VitaRx, we're not just passionate about our work — we take immense pride in it. Our dedicated team of writers diligently follows strict editorial standards, ensuring that every piece of content we publish is accurate, current, and highly valuable. We don't just strive for quality; we aim for excellence.

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