Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Focus on folic acid

I do not purport to be a nutritionist. I work with them sometimes, but my realm of expertise is food enjoyment: making and eating and teaching and getting others excited about good food. As such, I was invited to work with a group of staff and patients over at Howard University Hospital last weekend. It was part of a workshop series geared toward improving the quality of life of folks dealing with sickle cell anemia. As participants trickled in around noon, we got cooking. More precisely, we got grinding cumin seeds and tearing kale and shaking vinaigrette as participants helped me prepare some sweet and savory salads from the beautiful seasonal produce I'd pre-washed and brought along.

I'd learned that patients going through treatment for sickle cell disease often have low folic acid levels, so I was specifically looking for easy, tasty, inexpensive recipes using folic-acid-laden ingredients. (And since the workshop was to take place *in* a hospital, I couldn't have an open flame, so I found myself making salads.) In spite of themselves, a number of folks admitted to really enjoying the trio of salads. The massaged kale salad was a crowd pleaser once again, with the apple beet salad a close second. (Carrot salad always comes in third -- why is that?) All were loaded with folic acid, also known as vitamin B9. It was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to the next workshop with this group (which will focus on container gardening).

So, what does folic acid do, anyway?

I was wondering the same thing myself when the hospital staff approached me about teaching a cooking class with an emphasis on folic acid. So I did a little research. Being a food educator doesn't mean I know everything about everything related to food, you know. (I do know a heck of a lot about cooking, though. And eating.) Vitamin B9 is super important in red blood cell formation, and is a major factor in preventing and treating anemia. Even if you aren't anemic you'll want to make sure you're getting plenty in your diet. Folic acid deficiencies are also apparently linked to other health issues, from macular degeneration to depression to a whole spectrum of birth defects. Planning on having kids? Ladies, make sure you're getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy. (Calm down, mom and dad, I'm not planning on having kids in the near future. You can be sure I'll be eating plenty of kale salad when that happens, though.)

What kinds of foods are high in folic acid? Many of my favorites!
  • Avocado (hooray!)
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Berries (strawberries, raspberries)
  • Brussels sprouts (send me an email, I'll give you 14 different recipes)
  • Carrots and celery
  • Cauliflower
  • Citrus (oranges, lemons, grapefruits)
  • Corn
  • Dark, leafy greens (kale, collards, spinach, beet greens)*
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)*
  • Okra
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Squashes 
*Note: foods marked with an asterisk (*) are also quite high in iron, so check with your doctor before consuming large quantities while on iron-level-spiking medication for sickle cell anemia.

[Photos courtesy of Don Cash]

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