January 25, 1999
Volume 51, No. 17
Having Sex? Take Your Folic Acid!
Getting pregnant may not be one of your New Year's resolutions, but if you are having sex it could happen to you. At least 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and college-age women are at high risk for unplanned pregnancies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine/Food and the Nutrition Board recommend that all women who could get pregnant (those having sex) consume 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid (vitamin B-9) each day in order to prevent some very serious birth defects. Children with these birth defects usually die early or are paralyzed.
Whether you're planning a pregnancy or not, if you become pregnant you probably want the baby to be healthy. The birth defects that folic acid prevents occur so early in pregnancy that if you wait until you know you're pregnant, it is too late. These birth defects occur when the embryo is no larger than a grain of rice. So to be sure to minimize your risk of having a baby with these birth defects soon or in the distant future, you should establish the habit of consuming 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid every day.
Where do you find synthetic folic acid and how can you know you are consuming 400 micrograms? It is very easy to find. It is in almost all multivitamins and cold breakfast cereals and will be listed as folic acid or folate in the label. Most breakfast cereals have only 100 micrograms per serving, but a few--Total, Total Raisin Bran, Total Corn Flakes, Smart Start, Product 19 and Cheerios Plus--contain 400 micrograms.
Does consuming the supplement mean you shouldn't also have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables? Of course not. As your mother told you, you should also eat a varied diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.
College-educated women can be very effective teachers for the community. Currently only one in three women of reproductive age is consuming the recommended amounts of folic acid. Many of you will attend a wedding in the next year. My wife, Mary Ann, and I invite you to join a tradition that we are promoting. When we are invited to a wedding, we give the bride a year's supply of folic acid and tell her why it is important to consume it daily. If we are at the rehearsal dinner, we present the vitamin gift there because the room is filled with women who will have babies over the next decade. It is a wonderful opportunity to educate these women about the importance of folic acid.
Godfrey Oakley is a visiting professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and is an internationally recognized expert in the epidemiology and prevention of birth defects.