Folic acid may protect heart health

According to the World Health Organisation, over 7 million deaths per year are attributable to heart disease. There are a number of risk factors for heart disease - smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and high cholesterol to name but a few, and another risk factor has recently been identified.

Studies have shown that high blood levels of an amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) called homocysteine can lead to an increased risk of vascular disease and stroke. One recent study showed that an increase in blood homocysteine of just 5 µmol/L was associated with a 50% increase in deaths from heart disease (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July 2001).

Homocysteine is formed during the breakdown of the dietary protein methionine and is then broken down itself in our cells. The breakdown of homocysteine uses a number of the B vitamins: folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and riboflavin, and low levels of these vitamins can make this process less efficient.

Folic acid benefits

The resulting build-up of homocysteine is known as mild hyperhomocysteinemia (normal range is 5-15 µmol/L). The exact mechanism by which elevated homocysteine can lead to vascular disease is not known, but it is thought that direct damage to the lining of blood vessels causes the vessels to clog and blood to clot (atherosclerosis and thrombosis).

Fortunately, studies have found that we can lower our homocysteine by increasing our B vitamin levels, especially that of folate.

Food sources of folate

Folate is found naturally in many foods including leafy green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, orange juice, lentils, beans and meat, especially offal.

The synthetic form of folate, folic acid, is also added to many foods: breakfast cereal and fortified breads, milk and fruit juice.

Folic acid is more easily used in our bodies than natural food folate, so increasing our intake of these fortified products will greatly increase body folate stores.

How much folate is enough?

It's recommended that we should increase our folate intake by 400ìg (0.4mg) each day. This amount would certainly help reduce elevated homocysteine levels. Taking a folic acid or B complex supplement or a multi-vitamin containing the Bs will help you easily reach this amount – this is the dose recommended to all women of child-bearing age, so supplements are readily available.

Here are some facts on folate figures:

Natural food folates

½ cup of lentils 24 μg
Glass of orange juice 32 μg
½ cup of beans 34 μg
Small bag of peanuts 53 μg
Serving of broccoli 54 μg
Lamb’s kidney 80 μg
Serving of spinach 135 μg
Serving of asparagus 194 μg
Serving of liver 320 μg

Folic acid fortified products

Slice of fortified bread 30 μg
Breakfast cereal 75 μg
Glass of fortified milk 175 μg

To incorporate these foods into your diet, you could go for breakfast cereal with fortified milk and a glass of orange juice for breakfast – there’s almost 200 μg of folate.

A sandwich on fortified bread for lunch will add another 60 μg while a spinach salad or casserole of beans and lentils, served with broccoli, will bring your daily total up to the magic 400 μg.

So go on, eat your greens and spoon on the spinach.

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