folate in fortified cerealFolate is a B vitamin. It is also called folic acid. Folate is stored in the body in very small amounts and leaves the body through the urine. Getting enough folate in your diet is a good thing. Folate is a key vitamin, especially before and during pregnancy. Not getting enough during this time can lead to birth defects in babies.

What Folate Does

Folate plays a role in:

  • Helping the body break down and use the amino acids that make up proteins
  • Making new cells and keeping them healthy
  • Making DNA and RNA, the building blocks of cells
  • Blocking changes to DNA that may lead to cancer
  • Making red blood cells and preventing low levels of red blood cells called anemia
  • Helping to make chemicals that affect sleep, pain, and mood

Recommended Intake:

Age Group (in Years) Recommended Dietary Allowance
Females Males
1 - 3 150 mcg 150 mcg
4 - 8 200 mcg 200 mcg
9 - 13 300 mcg 300 mcg
14 - 18 400 mcg 400 mcg
Pregnancy, 14 - 18 600 mcg n/a
Lactation, 14 - 18 500 mcg n/a
19+ 400 mcg 400 mcg
Pregnancy, 19+ 600 mcg n/a
Lactation, 19+ 500 mcg n/a

mcg=microgram

Too Little Folate

Folate deficiency (too little folate) is common. It can happen for a number of reasons, like:

  • Higher need, as with pregnancy
  • Not eating enough foods with folate
  • Very high levels of folate passing out of the body
  • Medicine that makes it hard for the body to use folate, such as anti-seizure medicine

Groups at Risk of Having Too Little Folate

These groups may be at risk of having too little folate and may need a supplement:

  • Pregnant women: Folate plays a big role in the making and upkeep of new cells.
  • People who drink too much alcohol: Alcohol makes it hard for the body to absorb folate. It also makes the kidneys get rid of folate too quickly. Also, people who drink too much tend to have diets low in folate.
  • People on certain medicine: Some medicine can make it hard for the body to use folate.
  • People with inflammatory bowel diseases: These can make it hard for the body to absorb folate.
  • Older adults: Many older adults have low blood levels of folate. This can be because they do not get enough in their diet or because their body cannot absorb it.

How Low Folate Can Affect Your Health

Low folate may lead to:

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Lack of hunger and weight loss
  • Memory problems
  • Tongue soreness or swelling
  • Mood problems
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Megaloblastic anemia (red blood cells that are very large)
  • Believing things that are not based on reality

Birth Defects

The risk of birth defects is lower in people who get enough folate before and just after getting pregnant. Many women do not yet know they are pregnant during this time. For this reason, all women of childbearing age should make sure they get at least 400 mcg per day.

Major Food Sources

Many types of foods have folate. It is also added to some foods, like cereal, rice, and flour. Here is a list of major food sources and their folate content.

Food Serving Size Folate Content
(mcg)
Fortified breakfast cereal 3/4 cup 100-400
(check Nutrition Facts label)
Soy flour 1 cup 260
Beef liver 3 ounces 215
Chickpeas 1 cup 282
Spinach 1 cup 262
Lima beans 1 cup 156
Papaya, raw 1 cup 54
Avocado 1 cup 122
Wheat germ 2 tablespoons 40
Asparagus 1 cup 268
Orange juice, fresh ¾ cup 35
Spinach, 1 cup 58
Green peas 1/2 cup 47
White rice, medium-grain 1 cup 90
Orange, navel 1 small 29
Broccoli 1 cup 104
Peanuts 1 ounce 41
Tomatoes 1 cup 32
Tomato juice 1 cup 49
Peanut butter, crunchy 2 tablespoons 30
Banana 1 medium 24
Cashews 1 ounce 20
Enriched bread 1 slice 84

Tips to Raise Your Intake

To help get more folate:

  • Spread a little avocado on your sandwich in place of mayo.
  • Drink a glass of orange juice or tomato juice.
  • Add spinach to your scrambled eggs.
  • Slice a banana on top of your cereal.
  • Sprinkle some toasted wheat germ on top of pasta or a stir-fry.
  • Throw some chickpeas or kidney beans into a salad.
  • Make sure your vitamin contains folate.

Too Much Folate

There can be too much of a good thing. There is no upper limit for taking in folate found naturally in foods. However, there are recommended limits for the amount of folate you get from fortified foods and supplements:

Age Micrograms (mcg) per day
1 to 3 years 300 mcg
4 to 8 years 400 mcg
9 to 13 years 600 mcg
14 to 18 years 800 mcg
Pregnant or nursing women up to 18 years 800 mcg
19 years and older 1,000 mcg
Pregnant or nursing women 19 years and older 1,000 mcg

Large doses of folate can make it hard to spot symptoms of low vitamin B12 (B12 deficiency). This can look a lot like having too little folate. But too little B12 can also cause damage to the nervous system. Folate supplements will help the symptoms of anemia caused by too little vitamin B12, but they will not stop damage to the nervous system. A blood test will help find out if your folate and vitamin B12 levels are low. You may need to take vitamin B12 supplements along with the folate. Talk to your doctor before you take any supplement.

RESOURCES:

Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
http://choosemyplate.gov

Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
http://www.eatright.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

Health Canada
http://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Folate. Linus Pauling Institute Oregon State University. Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/folate. Accessed June 10, 2021.

Folate. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health website. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional. Accessed June 10, 2021.

Folate deficiency. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/folate-deficiency. Accessed June 10, 2021.

Folate, DFE (µg) content of selected foods per common measure, sorted by nutrient content. USDA national nutritional database for standard reference, release 28. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/docs/Foundation_Foods_Documentation_Apr2021.pdf. Accessed June 10, 2021.

Folic acid. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/drug-monograph/folic-acid. Accessed June 10, 2021.

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board   Last Updated: 6/10/2021