There's a lot to be said for pregnancy cravings — from pickles and ice cream to midnight lasagne — but the truth is, those cravings are usually indicative of a deeper sort of hunger.
Pregnancy is more than just an incubation period, it's a construction period, and it marks a time of rapid tissue growth both for your own body and for your baby's. As a result, you do need more — more food, more liquids, more rest and, most importantly, more nutrients.
These nutrients are crucial to your health, while also help your baby have the healthiest start to life possible. Two of those essential vitamins are vitamin B9 (also known as folic acid) and vitamin B12.
What is folate?
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 and it's found naturally in many foods. Folic acid, on the other hand, is a synthetic form and is often found in supplements, medications and fortified foods.
Interestingly, the health benefits of folate and in turn, folic acid, are so remarkable, even outside of pregnancy, that some foods have undergone mandatory folic acid fortification — from bread to pasta to cereal — as it has been shown to have properties that help with dementia and cognitive decline, cancer risk particularly colorectal cancer risk, heart disease and neural tube defects, the last of which we'll come back to shortly.
The reason folic acid has an impact on these things is that it works hand-in-hand with vitamin B12 to help to form DNA and RNA, produce healthy red blood cells (which makes it critical during periods of rapid growth such as during pregnancy), and plays a key role in breaking down homocysteine, which is a harmful amino acid.
It's basically a super vitamin and one that helps to keep you healthy and strong.
How much folate do you need?
All women should be aiming to get 400 micrograms of folate a day, but while pregnant, it's ideal to be aiming for an increased folate intake of somewhere between 400 and 800 micrograms.
Unless your doctor recommends it, it's important not to go over 1,000 micrograms as it can hide signs that you lack vitamin B12, which can create an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer risk, muscle cramping, severe fatigue and more.
Why do you need more folate during pregnancy?
There is a whole range of reasons why pregnant people benefit from greater folate intake, both in terms of their own body and the health of their baby.
The most important benefit is that consuming folate before and during pregnancy is proven to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
What is a neural tube defect?
It sounds scary, doesn't it? In some ways, it can be. Neural tube defects, or NTDs, occur when the neural tube doesn't close properly.
The neural tube is basically the blueprint for what becomes your baby's brain and spinal cord, so these types of birth defects occur in very early pregnancy and usually manifest as anencephaly or spina bifida, a brain and spinal cord defect respectively.
Wait, so we're talking the first trimester?
We are! Although the benefits of taking folic acid supplements are proven throughout pregnancy, it's especially crucial to ensure you're getting enough folate during that first trimester.
In fact, if you're planning a pregnancy, it's actually good to start taking folic acid supplements even before you conceive as it's going to give your body the best chance to build up those folate levels to an adequate intake.
In fact, it's recommended to start taking a pregnancy supplement three months before you begin trying to conceive. Kin's Prenatal Vitamins are formulated with bioavailable ingredients —which means your body can better absorb them — in the ideal amounts you need for pregnancy.
And, because roughly one in three people have trouble absorbing folic acid due to a common genetic variant, Kin's Prenatal contains activated methylated folate, which is the same folate that's naturally found in the body and is more bioavailable than folic acid.
Plus, Kin's Prenatal doesn't cause constipation, nausea, reflux or gut irritation, which can all be common during pregnancy.
If your pregnancy is unplanned, don't stress! Talk to your doctor or a medical professional when you can to ensure you don't have a folate deficiency and adjust your folate intake accordingly.
Can folic acid impact other parts of pregnancy?
It can. While these areas are less researched than the impact folate has on preventing neural tube defects and spina bifida, numerous observational studies suggest folic acid can positively reduce the risk of many conditions in both pregnant women and their babies.
For pregnant women, studies have suggested that folic acid can reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia, gestational hypertension and pre-term delivery.
For their babies, folic acid has been shown that on top of preventing neural tube defects, it may reduce cancer risk, particularly the risk of acute myeloid leukemia, brain and spinal cord tumours, and congenital heart defects.
What is the main source of folate foods?
The number one food source of folate is dark green leafy vegetables. By this, we're talking spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and broccoli.
This particular brand of healthy eating creates a lower risk for a whole range of things, including inflammatory bowel disease, but particularly those early pregnancy risks of folate deficiency anaemia, birth defects and more.
Being high in folate, these foods can support folate absorption and get you a healthy dose of your other B vitamins too.
What are some of the other foods high in folate?
If those leafy greens don't grab your fancy, never fear! There are many foods that are high in folate, vitamin B12 and other essential vitamins, and this sort of healthy eating is going to have health benefits for both you and your baby. In particular, foods to eat are:
- Beans of all varieties
- Peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds (time to pack that trail mix!)
- Fresh fruits and fruit juice, particularly citrus such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes
- Whole grains
- Beef liver
- Seafood (although remember to avoid raw fish and shellfish if you're pregnant)
- Eggs; and
- Fortified foods such as bread, pasta, rice and cereal.
If you're not quite a fan of these folate foods separately, try combining them! Something special like orange and almond cake can work as a treat, while also including fresh fruit juice, nuts and eggs in one delicious hit.
What can cause folate deficiency?
There are a few things that can cause hiccups in your absorption that could lead to folate deficiency and, at its worst, cause folate deficiency anaemia.
This often happens because folic acid is water-soluble, which means unmetabolised folic acid doesn't get stored in the fat tissues of your body and instead gets washed out through your urine.
This means that you don't have big reserves to call back on, and daily folate intake is crucial to maintaining healthy levels and keeping a stable B vitamin status.
There is a range of factors that can create an increased risk of vitamin B9 and vitamin B12 deficiency.
In particular, alcohol interferes with your body's folate absorption, and eating overcooked fruits and vegetables can not be as productive as you want it to be as high heat can destroy folate.
Chronic illnesses such as coeliac disease or Crohn's disease can also, unfortunately, have an impact as these prevent nutrients from being as well absorbed by the digestive system.
In this sense, a dietary supplement that is high in folate might be the best course of action. Talking to your doctor about your folate levels is recommended.
With so much to think about, we know pregnancy can be a little overwhelming — but it doesn’t have to be. Kin's Pregnancy Checklist consists of bite-sized checklist items personalised to your pregnancy journey. Approved by fertility specialists and OBYGN approved, you'll feel prepared to tackle each day as it comes and enjoy the process, rather than get lost in it.
When should you look at taking folic acid supplements?
If those leafy greens and fortified foods aren't getting those folate levels up to where you need them, supplementation through a dietary supplement, such as Kin's Prenatal Vitamins, is an easy alternative to help you feel confident that you're getting your recommended dietary allowance of not just folate, but vitamin B12, omega-3, iron, zinc and many more essential vitamins.
If you have any questions about folate foods, folate supplements or your risk of folate deficiency, you should speak to your doctor or another medical professional.