Women in the child-bearing age should include folic acid in their diet

Folic acid is one of the most important vitamins for women and foetuses, and yet it receives the least attention in the daily diet. Folic acid supports the growth of rapidly growing tissues. Studies show that women who consume 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid daily before conception and in the first few weeks of pregnancy reduce the chances of their babies developing abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord called neural tube defects by 70 per cent. Folic acid also counters some of the anaemia of pregnancy.

Folic is a water-soluble B-vitamin. Good sources of this vitamin include leafy green vegetables, peas and legumes, fresh fruit, whole grains and enriched cereals. Unfortunately, the rice we eat daily loses most of its folic acid during the milling process. Leafy greens, fresh fruit and legumes are not on everybody’s daily menu, and too often women receive the smallest food portions in a household. The food a woman gets improves dramatically when her in-laws find out she is pregnant. However, most pregnancies are unplanned, and most women know they are pregnant only a month after conception. By this time, the extra folic acid is not as beneficial: most neural tube defects occur during the first 28 days of pregnancy.

The average Indian diet is deficient in folic acid to begin with; western fast food alternatives are just as bad.

All women of childbearing age need enough folic acid in the daily diet, and they will not get it unless cultural attitudes change to give priority to women when it comes to food.

Women who do not get enough folic acid in food need a folate supplement daily. There is little danger of folate toxicity at these doses, and all women of childbearing age are better off taking one daily.

Fortification of cereals and flour is one method of ensuring everybody gets enough folate. In the West, routine fortification of cereals with folate has dramatically reduced the incidence of neural tube defects. In India, the practice is yet to become law. Folate deficiency, like iodine deficiency, is a problem that requires efforts on a large scale as well changes in cultural attitudes. At home, the solution should probably begin with feeding women and children first and men last.