There are several reasons why pregnant women have an increased need for folic acid. Overweight women should even pay special attention, as folic acid reduces their risk of having babies who are also overweight. This was seen in a new American study that got published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Overweight and obesity among adults and children is a growing problem that may lead to cardiovascular disease, blood clots, diabetes, and other serious ailments. During pregnancy, overweight may also increase the risk of different complications such as premature delivery and stillbirth. Moreover, babies of overweight mothers have an increased risk of being overweight during their childhood, just like their risk of other health problems is increased.
The expecting mother's nutritional status has short- and long-term significance
According to Xiaobin Wang from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, who headed the above mentioned study, the nutritional status of the expecting mother not only influences her own health during pregnancy and after birth, it also has long-term implications for the health of her child.
According to Wang's study, adequate levels of folic acid may reduce the health risks, which the fetus gets exposed to, if the expecting mother is overweight. Because folic acid influences tissue growth and development during pregnancy, the need for this nutrient normally increases to twice the normal amount. The question is whether overweight people generally have an increased need for folic acid compared with those who have normal weight, regardless if they are pregnant or not.
Did you know that folic acid is also called vitamin B9, folate, and folacin?
Folic acid and its general importance during pregnancy
It is commonly known and widely accepted that folic acid lowers the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects (NTDs), including spina bifida and anencephaly, which are potentially life-threatening birth defects that occur during the first stage of pregnancy. Getting too little folic acid may even cause congenital heart defects. Even though these conditions are rare, it is very important to take supplements of folic acid right from the time you plan to become pregnant.
Health authorities in most western countries normally recommend 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, starting one month before conception and continuing at least three months into the pregnancy. This helps to prevent the risk of giving birth to a baby with neural tube defects. Recent research even suggests that taking supplements of folic acid during the entire pregnancy may lower the baby's risk of becoming overweight.
Better to be safe than sorry
Wang and his team of scientists monitored the health status of 1,500 mothers and their children (ages 2 to 9 years), including data from before, during, and after their pregnancy. The study participants, according to the Boston Birth Cohort, come from an area where the majority of inhabitants have low income, and where overweight among mothers and children is widespread. In order to establish levels of folic acid in the pregnant women, the researchers measured plasma samples that had been collected two to three days before the women gave birth. They observed that those mothers who had the lowest blood levels of folic acid had the greatest risk of having overweight children. When the mothers' blood levels of folic acid were at least 20 nmol/L (nanomoles per liter), which is the normal level for adults, their children were 43 per cent less likely to become overweight, compared with children of overweight mothers who had folic acid levels lower than 20 nmol/L. On the other hand, it did not affect the children's overweight that their mothers' levels of folic acid were a lot higher than 20 nmol/L
Nonetheless, the researchers recommend that women who plan to become pregnant should aim at getting optimal levels of folic acid rather than minimal levels of the nutrient.
Folic acid is important for the growth and development of the fetus during pregnancy
It is commonly known that folic acid prevents defects of the brain, spinal cord, and heart. However, science has only recently become aware that folic acid prevents metabolic disorders, including overweight and diabetes.
The expecting mother should pay attention to the fact that her need for folic acid is increased, and that deficiency or poor utilization may be caused by:
There are many different supplements for pregnant women that not only contain 400 micrograms of folic acid but also other vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that are highly important for normal development of the fetus and the brain.
Wang G, el al. Associations of maternal pregnancy BMI and plasma folate concentrations with child metabolic health. JAMA Pediatrics. 2016
NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child health and Human Development. Proper maternal folate may reduce child obesity risk. ScienceDaily 2016
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