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Taking high doses of folic acid during pregnancy may increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes occurring as the babies grow up.

The study, which was carried out in rats, showed that giving the rats 20 times the amount of folic acid that would usually be recommended resulted in the baby rats growing up to become overweight and develop insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

The study also showed that the baby rats that resulted from the pregnancies with a high folic acid dose had low levels of the hormone adiponectin. Deficiency in adiponectin is associated with increased risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and heart disease.

Folic acid and birth defects

Folic acid is frequently prescribed to women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, to decrease the risk of neural tube defects. The recommendation from the American Diabetes Association is that 0.4 mg of folic acid should be taken if there is a chance that women with diabetes may become pregnant and that should be increased to 0.6 mg of folic acid if pregnancy is being specifically planned.

It is not uncommon, however, for women to take higher doses of 4 mg of folic acid in an attempt to avoid neural tube defects occurring. Neural tube defects are problems that can affect the brain, spine or spinal cord. Spina bifida and anencephaly are the two most common forms of neural tube defects.

Interpreting the findings

The study suggests that while folic acid is important in reducing the risk of neural tube defects, that consuming too much folic acid could present its own problems.

Lead researcher, Professor Elisa Keating, of the University of Porto, Portugal, states: “Considering the increasing amount of folic acid consumed during pregnancy through fortified foods, multivitamin pills and supplements, the search for a safe upper dose of folic acid is urgently needed”.

The study is published in the Journal of Endocrinology.