Eating sufficient amounts of foods to provide adequate folate is important for everyone. This means consuming real food and avoiding junk food. This is accomplished when enough vegetables are consumed, the best sources of folate, along with other items including fruits, legumes and meats (even cocoa has a moderate amount).
Inadequate folate levels increase the risk for many health problems. These include a variety of cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other dementias, stroke and heart disease, neural tube defects, spontaneous abortion, male infertility, and possibly Down syndrome.
Many foods contain natural folates. Raw, fresh spinach, for example, may be one of the highest-rated folate foods, but there are many more listed in part 1 of this article. Reductions in folates occur with food storage (folate breaks down over time), and during freezing, canning and cooking. But if you’re eating adequately, and still have high homocysteine, it may mean your folate is still low and you may require natural supplementation.
The main reason for which folate directly affects overall health and fitness is that this nutrient is required for a biochemical process called methylation.
Methylation is essential for the proper function of almost all the body’s systems. It occurs billions of times every second, playing a key role in:
- Repairing DNA damage.
- Brain function.
- Controlling inflammation.
- Controlling which genes are turned on or off (such as those for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s).
The chart below lists some of these single-serving folate-rich foods, with the amounts (in mcg) of natural folate.
- Avocado 118
- Spinach 263
- Asparagus 243
- Beets 136
- Leaf lettuce 119
- Lentils 358
- Brussels sprouts 157
- Broccoli 168
- Green peas 94
- Orange 54
- Papaya 112
- Turkey 486
- Beef 221
Source: USDA database.
These are not the only foods high in natural folates, so variety is important — beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, chicken and many other items also contain significant levels of folate.
Loss of water-soluble folate during cooking is not significant unless foods are boiled in water and the water discarded. Steaming, grilling, baking, sautéing and other forms of cooking are acceptable. However, raw vegetables in particular need to be chewed well in order to obtain the folate within these foods. For this reason, blending is most effective in obtaining high amount of food folate. An example is the addition of raw spinach to your smoothie (you won’t even know it’s there with the sweetness of the fresh fruits).
Improving Folate Regulation
In addition to obtaining natural folates from a healthy diet, other nutrients help with their regulation. This is especially important for those individuals who are genetically compromised — those with the C677T genotype.
- Consumption of apples, especially the skins. This can help the body compensate for genetic insufficiency, thereby preventing the adverse effects of such problems as low folate and high homocysteine. This is probably due to this fruit’s many phytonutrients, especially those with antioxidant functions.
- Consumption of fruits and vegetables. Their high antioxidant content can impact our health many ways. One is that these nutrients can protect against genetic disorders, including the C677T genotype. So eating more fruits and vegetables not only provides the vitamins and minerals necessary for good health, they protect us in other ways, many of which are still not completely understood.
- Omega-3 fats from fish oil have been shown to positively influence genetic expression, and improve the function of the enzymes necessary to metabolize folates.
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2) and magnesium.
Those with the genetic variant discussed in “Testing Folate Metabolism” may compensate to some degree for low folate status by utilizing more of the nutrient choline (which, like folate, can serve as a methyl donor). This includes helping to reduce abnormally high homocysteine levels. An increased need for choline is common, especially in those under higher levels of stress, and with asthma (see “Athletes and Asthma”). The main dietary source of this nutrient is in egg yolks (with none found in the whites).
Based on the amount needed to prevent liver dysfunction, the government recommends only about 500 mg of choline for adults. But even this amount is very difficult to obtain from the diet without consuming eggs every day — something some sources recommend against.
More importantly, the metabolic requirement for choline is likely higher in individuals with the genetically compromised folate status. At the same time, choline also helps protect against genetic damage, which is the earliest functional effect of its inadequacy.