If you're pregnant or trying to conceive, chances are you're familiar with folate, an important vitamin for red blood cell development. But, eating a diet rich in folate has many other benefits, and can contribute to overall health and wellness. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), folate deficiency is linked to many conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, spina bifida, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Nutritionist Lisa Richards, CNC, says, "Folate is a vital nutrient that plays a role in cell health and DNA production in the body. Homocysteine [an amino acid] tends to rise in the absence of adequate folate in the body, which can lead to an increase in heart disease," she explains. "Folate can help mitigate the signs and symptoms of cellular health, ranging from aging skin to chronic disease."
Also known as vitamin B9, folate is found in vegetables, legumes, and fruit. According to celebrity chef and nutritionist Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, "folate is more bioavailable than folic acid," which is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 found in supplements and fortified foods. Poon points to an NIH study that indicates it's much more difficult for your body to convert folic acid into an active form of vitamin B9 than if you consume foods rich in folate. So although doctors may recommend certain populations to take a folic acid supplement (more on that later), the most ideal way to get your B9 is by eating foods rich in the source. "Eating a diet that is rich in folate is preferred to folic acid," explains Poon, "unless you are in a sensitive population and you are recommended a folic acid supplement by your healthcare provider." Additionally, it's best to consume folate-rich foods raw or steamed to preserve their nutrients. "Boiling folate-rich vegetables in water can significantly decrease the folate content by up to 49 percent," says Poon. "Opt for raw or steamed vegetables instead. Folate can also be lost during the canning process. Try to eat these foods as close to nature as possible."
Some populations, including pregnant women, should take folic acid supplements to ensure their daily folate intake. The NIH outlines folate recommendations for pregnant women in order to prevent birth defects like spina bifida and to encourage healthy fetal development. Additionally, according to Poon, "people who have celiac or IBD might have difficulties absorbing enough folate." She adds that people with MTHFR polymorphism (a genetic condition) have "difficulties converting folate into its active form and may need special supplementation of 5-methyl-THF, an active form of folic acid." And finally, according to Poon, "people with alcohol disorders are at risk for folate deficiencies partially because alcohol hinders folate absorption."
According to Richards, "Those following a plant-based diet will also want to focus on folate as they may be lacking due to low or no intake of animal sources." But, she says, "it is easy to consume folate with a plant-based diet. People just need to be cognizant of it."
In order to reap the benefits of a diet rich in folate, be sure to fill your pantry with the following foods recommended by our experts. Ahead, check out 10 foods filled with folate.
Meet the Expert
- Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, is a celebrity chef, nutritionist, and reiki master, and founder of Culinary Alchemy as well as Just Add Water, a wellness line of super-nutrient foods and supplements.
- Lisa Richards, CNC, is a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet, with expertise in gut health and inflammation.
"A cup of raw spinach provides about 15% of your recommended daily folate intake, plus it contains many other nutrients that support health, such as vitamins C and K and calcium," says Poon. She adds, "Spinach is easy to find and makes a delicious salad base."
Dark, leafy greens are ideal for folate consumption. In addition to spinach, Richards suggests you pack your diet full of foods like kale and collard greens. "This category is another nutrient-rich group of foods, especially as it relates to folate and vitamin K," she says.
Plant-based protein like beans is an important dietary staple. Says Richards, "Not only are legumes packed with folate, but they are dense in other essential nutrients. Consuming legumes on a regular basis ensures you are getting in adequate amounts of fiber, folate, protein, magnesium, and iron. I recommend a cup a day for those following a plant-based diet. Legumes include beans, peas, and lentils."
According to Poon, "One half cup of cooked black-eyed peas delivers about 26% of your recommended daily folate intake. They are also a wonderful source of fiber, protein, and nutrients such as vitamins A and K, manganese, and calcium."
Poon recommends broccoli for its nutritional value. "A cup of raw broccoli contains about 14% of your daily recommended folate intake and also contains vitamins C and K and fiber," she says. "Raw broccoli makes a great midday snack or side dish."
Says Richards, "Broccoli gets a lot of attention for its fiber content, but it is also an excellent source of folate. Interestingly, the folate content increases from raw to cooked. A cup of raw broccoli provides about 15% of the DV of folate while a cup of cooked broccoli is a little over 20% of the DV of this nutrient."
Lightly sautéed in coconut oil, Brussels sprouts make a delicious side dish. Plus, they're packed with nutrients. "One half cup of Brussels sprouts contains approximately 12% of your recommended daily folate intake," says Poon, who adds they're also a "great source of vitamins C and K and fiber."
Poon recommends asparagus, which you can steam, lightly sauté, or grill. "One half cup of cooked asparagus provides about 34% of your daily recommended folate," says Poon. "It has a unique flavor that adds excitement to many dishes and contains many healthy nutrients such as vitamins A and K and thiamin. Asparagus is also a great source of fiber!"
Richards adds that asparagus is an anti-inflammatory that's packed with rich antioxidants, so it's beneficial to overall health and digestive wellness.
Another superfood loaded with folate is avocado. "One half of an avocado provides about 15% of your daily recommended folate intake," says Poon. "Avocados also deliver healthy fats and are incredibly delicious on toast, in smoothies, or on their own."
Simple and delicious, green peas are surprisingly rich in vitamins. "One half cup of peas provides about 13% of your daily recommended folate intake," says Poon. She adds, "Green peas are generally well liked and easy to come by. They also deliver an array of healthy nutrients such as vitamin K, thiamin, vitamin B6, and manganese, just to name a few," explains Poon.
Poon says that "one half cup of these beans provides almost 30% of your daily recommended folate intake." Additionally, she says kidney beans are also "high in additional nutrients such as potassium, thiamin, vitamin K, manganese, and magnesium."
You want to make sure you're eating folate-rich foods on the regular, so it's key to actually enjoy them. "One medium banana provides about 6% of your daily recommended folate intake," says Poon. "While not the food highest in folate, I like them because bananas are well liked and are generally easy to find."
Another delicious fruit to incorporate into your diet if you want to increase your intake of folate is papaya. "A half cup of cut papaya provides about 7% of your daily recommended folate intake," says Poon. As an added bonus, papaya contains enzymes that support healthy digestion," she says.