Why should I eat grains if I'm pregnant?

Grains are a phenomenal source of folic acid. In fact, all enriched flour and grain foods in the U.S. are required by law to be fortified with folic acid.

Folic acid is a B vitamin. Our bodies use it to make new cells. Everyone needs folic acid. The need for folic acid was discovered in the 1930s when anemia during pregnancy was cured with a yeast extract. Women with inadequate folic acid intake are more likely to give birth to low birth weight (less than 5 1⁄2 pounds) and premature infants as well as to infants with neural tube defects (NTDs) which may involve the brain, spinal cord, meninges (membranes) and skull. Deficiency of this vitamin also has been linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, osteoporosis, cancer, dementia and cognitive deficit. Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine (anencephaly and spina bifida) by 50% to 70%.

Some grain products are enriched...for you!

The evidence in support of the vital role of folic acid in preventing neural tube defects (NTDs) lead the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create a mandatory folic acid fortification program in January 1998. This program specifies that all white breads and other enriched grain products, such as flour, rice, pasta, cornmeal, farina, breakfast cereal, and noodles be fortified with 140 mcg folic acid per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of food. Enriched grain products were selected to deliver folic acid for several reasons:

  • Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron were already being added to enrich grain products of nutrients lost during processing.
  • Grain foods are widely consumed and likely to have a great impact.

The goal of the fortification effort was to increase consumption of folate by women of childbearing age to reduce risk of pregnancies affected by NTDs. The fortification level was chosen to balance the benefits of increased folic acid to prevent birth defects, with any potential adverse effects such as masking vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly.In addition to fortification, an extra 300 mcg folic acid daily is needed—either through intake of fortified foods or from a dietary supplement—to meet current folate recommendations for women of childbearing age.

How much you need

Women of childbearing age need 400 μg (micrograms) of folic acid daily. Due to spina bifida and similar birth defects occurring in the first three weeks of pregnancy, women need to build up their folate stores long before they become pregnant. Since 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, it is even more crucial for all women of childbearing age to continually consume adequate intakes of folic acid.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are two easy ways to be sure to get enough folic acid each day:

  • Take a vitamin that has folic acid in it every day. Most multivitamins sold in the United States have the amount of folic acid women need each day. Women can also choose to take a small pill (supplement) that has only folic acid in it each day.  Multivitamins and folic acid pills can be found at most local pharmacy, grocery, or discount stores. Check the label to be sure it contains 100% of the daily value (DV) of folic acid, which is 400 micro­ grams (mcg).
  • Eat a bowl of breakfast cereal that has 100% of the daily value of folic acid every day.

Not every cereal has this amount. Check the label on the side of the box, and look for one that has “100%” next to folic acid.

According to WebMD (link to http://www.webmd.com/baby/features/top-tips-pregnancy-nutrition?page=2) a pregnant woman needs an additional 300 calories a day to help her baby grow healthy. On a daily basis, here's how to make those 300 additional calories matter most:

  • 16 ounces 1% low fat milk

  • 2 slices bread; 2 ounces chicken; 1 teaspoon reduced fat mayonnaise

  • 8 ounce vanilla non-fat yogurt mixed with 1/2 cup fruit and 1 ounce whole grain crunchy cereal

The medical and scientific world encourages using grains during pregnancy for a variety of reasons. BabyCenter (http://www.babycenter.com/0_grains-in-your-pregnancy-diet_1497.bc) says grains (whole wheat, oats, barley, corn, and rice, to name a few) are packed with nutrients like iron, selenium, and magnesium, which your growing baby needs for just about every part of the body. These foods supply energy for your baby's development and help build the placenta.

Here are some good options for grains. Each is equal to one serving (16 grams) of grain:

  • 1/2 cup cooked wheat, oatmeal, or barley cereal
  • 1 cup ready-to-eat whole grain cereal
  • 1/2 whole wheat bagel
  • 1/2 raisin or plain bagel
  • 1 slice of whole wheat, French, or sourdough bread
  • 1/2 whole grain hamburger or hot dog bun
  • 1/2 whole grain English muffin
  • 1/2 whole wheat pita pocket (6 inches across)
  • 1/2 cup cooked grain, such as quinoa, amaranth, millet, bulgur, or barley
  • 1/2 cup cooked whole wheat noodles or pasta
  • 1 corn or whole wheat tortilla (6 inches across)
  • 1 whole grain waffle or pancake (4 1/2 inches across)

More links on grains and pregnancy