This month, the Centers for Disease Control reported that their efforts to fight birth defects with folic acid have been largely successful. How successful? In January of 1998, it became mandatory for food manufacturers to fortify grain products (like enriched rice, cereals, breads and pastas) with folic acid. By December of that year, incidences of the birth defect spina bifida had decreased by 31 percent. "Impressive," you say, "but I'm not banking on having kids anytime soon ... what do I care?"
You care because the CDC estimates that half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. Birth defects caused by low folate levels occur within the first four weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they're pregnant. That's why all women of childbearing age need to be getting enough folate right now.
But folate deficiency isn't just a problem for the ladies. Watching your carbs? You're cutting yourself off from the wellspring of enriched foods that are now the backbone of American folate consumption. What's more, your body may need more folate than normal if you're anemic, on kidney dialysis, taking certain medications, or if you drink two or more alcoholic beverages a day. Still not interested? Increasing evidence suggests that folate can help prevent heart disease, Alzheimer's, depression, leukemia and cancers of breast, cervix, lungs, pancreas, esophagus, colon and rectum (yes, even the dreaded butt cancer could be thwarted by this stuff).
So what is this miracle substance? Folate is a naturally occurring B-vitamin that your body gets from whole foods like liver, leafy green veggies, beans, lentils and some fruits. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate that's added to enriched cereal grain and flour products. But which is better? Well, folic acid has a simpler chemical structure, making it slightly easier on your system to absorb. But after everything's said and done, your body really can't tell the difference. Just make sure you're getting enough. The recommended dietary allowance is 400 micrograms (400 mcg) a day for normal adults, and 600 micrograms for women who are pregnant or nursing. A measly .4 miligrams doesn't exactly sound daunting, but don't write it off.
You can make a significant dent in your daily folate needs just by sitting down to a well-rounded breakfast. Items that we associate most with a.m. munching (berries, tropical fruits, eggs, dairy and enriched grain products) tend to be moderately high in folate. In fact, you can get the full RDA New Mexico-style by eating the pinto beans that come with your huevos rancheros. Do you fancy yourself a Lucky Charms man? Go ahead and think inside the cardboard box, but do it with a cereal that's fortified with 100 percent of the RDA for folic acid. Some names include Total (any variety), Product 19, Just Right with Crunchy Nuggets, Smart Start (any variety), Multi-Grain Cheerios, Kashi Heart to Heart, Peace Cereal Essential 10 and Nature's Path Optimum Power Breakfast. Down a glass of orange juice, and you'll bump up your folate count by another 100 mcg.
Extremely lazy? Vitamin supplements might be the easiest way to go, provided you remember to take them. There are several name brands that deliver 100 percent of the RDA for folate, including One-A-Day, Centrum, Stresstabs and Theragran-M. Of course, if you're broke, stick with any pharmacy or generic brand that promises at least 400 micrograms of the stuff.