Folate (B9) Rich Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Most women think about folate (vitamin B9) when considering pregnancy because there is so much information available about the connection between folate and the prevention of birth defects.
But not much is spoken about the many benefits of B9 for general health, even though folate has many more important virtues other than healthy babies.
There are cardiovascular aspects and nervous system attributes which we will look at, but why do we get deficient in B9 in the first place? It’s mainly because so many people have an aversion to eating leafy green vegetables – one of the richest sources of folate.
If you love leafy greens you are unlikely to be deficient in folate unless you have a health condition that uses up a lot of folate, take a medication that robs your body of folate, or you simply cannot digest greens very well. There are other foods rich in folate, but greens are the most commonly eaten and abundant folate rich food.
There are different forms of vitamin B9. Folate is the natural form which comes from foliage – green veggies. Folic acid is a synthetic version – the most common supplemental form. Folinic acid is the activated or converted form of folic acid, and 5-Methylenetetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) is classified as a methylated form, and there are other forms of folate that I refer to. In this article, I mostly refer to ‘folate’ because this article focuses on food sources of vitamin B9.
For those with a genetic methylation defect called MTHFR, (the ‘F’ standing for folate) you may not be able to properly convert folic acid into folate or folinic acid or any derivative of folate very well and may even find that folic acid acts like a poison for your body. If you don’t have these defective genes then this is not an issue.
You will know if this is the case if you have had the genetic variant test, or if you take a supplement with folic acid and feel sick from it. If you would like to find out more about this defect, then please check the article about methylation defects/MTHFR on this site, which shows how taking synthetic folic acid can actually make it worse for you, rather than what you are trying to prevent with folic acid.
On a more technical level, folate is part of the water-soluble group of B vitamins and functions as a coenzyme (works together) with B12 and vitamin C in the breakdown of proteins from many foods.
Folate is a carbon carrier in the formation of heme, which is the iron containing protein found in hemoglobin needed for the formation of red blood cells, the process of growth and reproduction of all cells, and the formation of nucleic acid (DNA). Because of its role in the formation of red blood cells, a deficiency can result in anemia that can’t be corrected just by iron supplementation alone.
Necessary for the proper functioning of the brain, folate is found in high concentrations in the spinal and extracellular fluids. It is essential for mental and emotional wellbeing and it also increases appetite and stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid which helps with digestion, preventing food poisoning and keeping parasites at bay.
The need for folate is increased during pregnancy as the developing foetus needs it for rapid growth. Any deficiency can encourage deformities such as cleft palate or lip, brain damage, slow or poor development, learning disability, toxemia, premature birth and megaloblastic (B9) anemia in both mother and baby. It is important have plenty of folate at least one month prior to conception and to continue to have plenty for the first three months of pregnancy unless there are contra-indications.
Studies have shown great results when using folate and other B vitamins to support perinatal and postnatal depression in new mothers (perinatal refers to the time around birth, postnatal the time after birth). This is great, because drugs for depression are not good for the baby and would mean having to wean the little one’s off breast milk to enable the mum to take the meds. If taking meds, then the folate is needed for support, because many anti-depressants drain folate from your body.
Apart from post or peri natal depression, folate can help many who need support with mood, anxiety and depression.
Healthy fertility for both sexes
Good levels of folate in men have been shown to increase the chance of healthy mobile sperm with better pregnancy outcomes for their partners. Low levels of folate can increase the risk of chromosomal abnormalities in sperm. Folate helps to support healthy fertility in both men and women.
Healthy vascular and neurological systems
If you don’t have sufficient levels of folate (as well as B6 and B12) then you risk getting high levels of homocysteine, a substance that can build up in your blood and contribute to heart disease, stroke, vascular disorders and heart attack risk. Folate breaks down homocysteine into methionine, which is vital for a healthy cardio system.
As a bonus, reducing homocysteine levels also helps to keep cholesterol at a healthy level. Elevated homocysteine has also been linked to neurological conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, so keeping homocysteine levels normal is a bonus for the health of your brain.
Apparently there’s a link between low folate levels and the activation (switching on) of a gene that increases the risk for colon cancer, so it makes sense to eat folate rich foods. That way you also get plenty of fibre for a healthy colon. What a bonus! 🙂
Healthy cells, muscles and skin
Folate helps the growth and continued care of our muscles and is also important for the formation of cells throughout our body, including blood cells, intestinal lining cells and skin cells.
Folate is commonly deficient in many people and is destroyed by heat and light and by being left at room temperature for long periods. The best sources of folate are leafy green vegetables, liver and legumes.
Conditions such as celiac, vomiting, diarrhea and illnesses that interfere with the absorption of food can result in folate deficiency. The oral contraceptive ‘pill’ interferes with the absorption of folic acid. Also using common pain killers can deplete the body of folate (along with many other drugs).
A deficiency can also cause lesions at the corners of the mouth called cheiloses. A deficiency has been found in mentally retarded children, the aged, and those with leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. Alcohol, Phenobarbital, methotrexate and anticonvulsants can produce a folate deficiency.
Deficiencies of folate can result in the following symptoms:
- Birth defects
- Cracking skin
- Greying hair
- Gastro-intestinal tract disturbances
- Glossitis (tongue inflammation)
- Heart palpitations
- Infertility can be linked
- Mental sluggishness
- Poor appetite
- Poor growth
- Poor memory
- Shortness of breath
In food, it is nearly impossible to get excessive folate, but it is possible to get an excess of folic acid from supplements. There are certain conditions where supplemental folic acid should not be taken at all. Some medications won’t work as well if you take folic acid, while some medications rob the body of folate and you would then need to take more folate than what you can obtain from your diet.
If uncertain whether to take folic supplementation above what you can obtain from your diet, please check with your doctor or health practitioner. High doses exceeding 800mcg can potentially lead to the following:
- Skin reactions
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep problems
Following is the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin B6. The amounts are expressed in micrograms (mcg). A microgram = 1,000th of a milligram.
Infants 0 to 6mths: need 65mcg
Infants 7 to 12mths: need 80mcg
Children 1 to 3yrs: need 150mcg
Children 4 to 8yrs: need 200mcg
Children 9 to 13yrs: need 300mcg
Teens 14 to 18yrs: need 400mcg
Men and women 19yrs +: need 400mcg
Pregnant women: need 600mcg
Breastfeeding women: need 500mcg
Following are some foods rich in folate, showing the weight of the food and the quantity of vitamin B9 (folate) in micrograms. This list of foods can be used in conjunction with the above RDA’s.
- Lentils: 1 cup = 360mcg
- Black eyed peas: 1 cup = 350mcg
- Avocado (200g): 1 = 265mcg
- Spinach (cooked): 1 cup = 260mcg
- All dark leafy greens: 1 cup = 260mcg
- Beef liver: 3oz/85g = 215mcg
- Broccoli (cooked): 1 cup = 170mcg
- Mango (330g): 1 = 150mcg
- Rice, white (cooked): ½ cup = 90mcg
- Asparagus (cooked): ½ cup = 85mcg
- Brussels sprouts: ½ cup = 80mcg
- Strawberries (medium): 8 = 80mcg
- Lettuce (shredded): 1 cup = 65mcg
- Turnip greens: 1 cup = 65mcg
- Beetroot/beet greens: 1 cup = 60mcg
- Mustard greens: 1 cup = 60mcg
- Oranges: 1 = 50mcg
- Peas, green frozen: ½ cup = 50mcg
- Lima beans (cooked): 1 cup = 45mcg
- Papaya (cubed): ½ cup = 27mcg
- Banana (medium): 1 = 24mcg
- Egg: 1 = 22mcg
You can see that it is relatively easy to obtain sufficient levels of folate from your diet, and it makes it easier if you like green vegetables. But if you don’t, you can add some greens to a smoothie and not even notice the taste (if you don’t put too many until you get used to it).
When I was pregnant, I found that I couldn’t take any supplements because they made me feel sick. I also couldn’t stomach greens or mangos, and legumes made me bloated. Instead, I planted loads of organic strawberries and ate handfuls of them daily to keep my folate up. It’s amazing how creative you can be when you have to find ways to get enough folate.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.