Folate: A Healing Nutrient Profile

date: March 6, 2014

What does folate do?

This B vitamin—which includes both naturally occurring food folate and folic acid, the form found in fortified foods and supplements—is crucial for DNA replication and cell division. All people need folate but it’s especially important for pregnant women because it helps prevent fetal birth defects of the brain and spine. Our bodies also use folate to metabolize homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that may contribute to heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Because of these essential functions, low intakes of folate have been linked to a long list of diverse problems including heart attacks and stroke; certain cancers, including those of the colon, lungs, pancreas, and breast; osteoporosis; depression; and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are studying the effects of folate intake and folic acid supplementation on these and other conditions.

How much folate do you need?

The recommended dietary allowance for folate from food is:

  • 400 mcg for adults
  • 600 mcg for women who are pregnant
  • 500 mcg for women who are breastfeeding

It’s quite possible to get enough folate from food if you’re eating a healthy diet. There’s some evidence that folic acid supplements may contribute to cancer and heart disease, so supplementation is not widely recommended for the general public.

However, naturally occurring folate from food isn’t as easy for your body to use as folic acid from supplements or fortified foods, so women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant are advised to get 400 mcg of folic acid from daily prenatal vitamins and fortified foods to ensure adequate intake of the nutrient. Some doctors recommend that women continue taking prenatal vitamins if they’re breastfeeding.

You may need more than the RDA for your lifestage if you’re a woman carrying or nursing more than one baby, if you’re a chronic heavy drinker or if you’re on certain chronic medications. Beware, however: Most of us should get no more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid from supplements and fortified foods because levels higher can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency.

If you’re severely deficient in folate, a form of anemia can result and cause symptoms like weakness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability and headaches. A blood test for homocysteine, which is elevated with inadequate folic acid intake, serum folate or red blood cell folate may be done to find out if you’re lacking in the nutrient.

Where can you get folate?

Folate is found in dark green vegetables, beans and legumes, dairy products poultry, meat, eggs and seafood. Since 1998, all enriched grain products (like breads, pastas, flours, breakfast cereals and rice) have been fortified with folic acid, so these and other fortified foods are a rich source of the nutrient.

Some of our favorite non-fortified foods that contain folate:


Food                           Serving Size 

Folate (mcg)

Spinach, cooked

1 cup


Beef liver, braised

3 oz



½ cup



1 cup


Collards, cooked

1 cup


Turnip greens, cooked

1 cup



2 cups


Broccoli, cooked

1 cup


Pinto beans

½ cup


Garbanzo beans

½ cup


Black beans

½ cup


Okra, cooked

½ cup



1 medium


Hardboiled egg

1 large



3 oz


You can look up the folate content of other foods by referencing the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.


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