Fewer Women Taking Folic Acid Supplements

The B vitamin helps prevent birth defects, researchers say

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 29, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The number of American women taking folic acid supplements to prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine decreased from 40 percent in 2004 to 33 percent this year, according to a new report from the March of Dimes.

The report appears in the Sept. 30 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"We have found that over the years the percentage of women reporting taking a vitamin containing folic acid every day has gone back down to 33 percent in 2005," said report co-author Heather Carter, a CDC nutrition epidemiologist.

The researchers also found that the percentage of women who were aware of folic acid increased from 78 percent in 2004 to 84 percent in 2005.

While awareness increased, the percentage of women who know that folic acid prevents birth defects remained unchanged at 25 percent. And the percentage of women who know that folic acid should be taken before pregnancy dropped from 12 percent in 2004 to just 7 percent in 2005, the lowest percentage since 1997, according to the survey.

There are number of reasons why women don't take folic acid supplements, Carter noted. "The most common reason for not taking a vitamin is forgetting to take it," she said. "Twenty-eight percent say they forget to take a vitamin."

Many women also think they don't need to take a vitamin, Carter said. "Some women also believe that they can get the vitamin from the food they eat," she said. "We need to motivate women to take either a vitamin supplement or get folic acid from fortified foods."

Women of childbearing age are advised to take folic acid, a B vitamin, every day. Folic acid can also come from vitamin pills or foods such as enriched breads and cereals, leafy green vegetables and citrus fruits.

"Every women of childbearing age needs to be consuming a vitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to try to prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine," Carter stressed.

These birth defects most often include the neural tube defects spina bifida and anencephaly (incomplete brain formation). These birth defects, occurring in an estimated 3,000 pregnancies in the United States each year, can cause lifelong disability or death, according to the CDC.

One expert agrees with the importance of getting enough folic acid, and thinks that women can get the folic acid they need by eating vitamin-enriched foods.

The difficulty in getting all women of childbearing age to get enough folic acid owes to a combination of education and economics, said Tsunenobu Tamura, a professor of nutrition science at the University of Alabama.

"However, if women are eating enriched grain products like bread and cereal, they should get folic acid in addition to the folic acid they are getting from regular food," Tamura said.

Tamura encourages women to get folic acid from foods. "If you go to the grocery story you should select items that contain enriched flour to get folic acid," he said. "If women get folic acid through enriched foods, they may not need to take folic acid supplementation."

But another expert thinks that taking a supplement is the best way to guarantee that women are getting enough folic acid.

"To ensure that women get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, the most assured way is though a multivitamin supplement," said report co-author Joanne Petrini, director of the perinatal data center at the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.

There are probably not a lot of women getting the required amount of folic acid through diet, Petrini said. "Only a third are getting it through supplements, which means that 70 percent don't," she added.

More information

The CDC can tell you more about folic acid.

SOURCES: Heather Carter, M.S., M.P.H., nutrition epidemiologist, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Tsunenobu Tamura, Ph.D., M.S., professor, nutrition science, University of Alabama at Birmingham; Joanne Petrini, Ph.D, director, perinatal data center, March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, White Plains, N.Y.; Sept. 30, 2005, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

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