Nutrient: Folate (a B vitamin found in food) or Folic Acid (the synthetic form of folate found in supplements and in fortified foods)
Why It's Important: Folate is essential during periods of rapid cell division (such as pregnancy) because it is needed to make DNA and RNA, the building blocks of cells. Studies have found that women who have adequate intakes of folate and/or folic acid when they become pregnant and throughout pregnancy reduce their babies’ risks of developing a deformation of the brain or spinal column (a neural tube defect) by as much as 70 percent.
How to Get Enough: Folate occurs naturally in green leafy vegetables (about 100 micrograms in a 1/2 cup of cooked spinach), fruits (30 mcg in an orange), and in dried peas and beans (90 mcg in a 1/2 cup of boiled Great Northern beans). Foods fortified with folic acid include breads, cereals, and pastas.
Before Pregnancy: The DRI for folate in non-pregnant women is 400 mcg. Because the neural tube begins to form in the first trimester of pregnancy – before most women even know they are pregnant – experts advise women of childbearing age to take a supplement containing at least 400 mcg of folic acid per day, either as part of a multivitamin pill or as an individual nutrient, whether they are actively trying to get pregnant or not. “Approximately 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, so taking folic acid routinely ensures that you will have enough should you get pregnant unexpectedly,” says Laurie Gregg, M.D., chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento, California. “Ideally though, you want to have a preconception visit with your physician three months before pregnancy to discuss folic acid and other important issues.”
During Pregnancy: The DRI for folate/folic acid rises to 600 mcg per day. Virtually all prenatal vitamins contain folic acid, as high as 1,000 mcg per pill, and some doctors even recommend that if you are actively trying to become pregnant, you start taking prenatal vitamins before you conceive, but consult your own physician.