You already know eating a healthy and balanced diet is a key component of leading a healthy life, maintaining a healthy weight and preventing chronic conditions. Eating a well-rounded diet ensures you get the proper amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs. But do you know what those vitamins and minerals are?

You likely have heard of and know the importance of vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, fiber and iron in your diet, but there’s one vitamin you should also be sure to get plenty of: folic acid. Folic acid is most well-known for its important benefits to pregnant women and women attempting to become pregnant.

“Folic acid is incredibly important for women able to get pregnant – women with enough folic acid in their bodies before and during pregnancy can help prevent major birth defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Janet Milner, RDN, LDN, Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center.

But folic acid isn’t just important for pregnant women – it provides many health benefits to men and women of all ages as it helps the body make healthy new cells. Folic acid is credited with helping your body break down, create and use new proteins in addition to helping form new blood cells and create new DNA.

“Studies have shown that folic acid, which is also known as folate, folacin or vitamin B9, may help prevent some chronic health conditions, mood disorders and even some forms of cancer,” Milner said.

Folic acid may also help prevent heart disease.

“Folic acid has shown to reduce blood levels of a chemical called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine have been linked to heart disease and stroke,” Milner said. “Without folic acid, high homocysteine levels can cause blood to clot more easily, potentially leading to heart disease, heart attacks and stroke.”

Folic acid may also help prevent kidney disease or help improve it – high levels of homocysteine have also been associated with serious kidney disease.

Some studies have found that folic acid may play a part in mood regulation and help with depression. Folic acid also may play a key role in preventing overall memory loss associated with old age, possibly even reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This mineral is believed to help with the breakdown of triglycerides, which are a type of fat in blood that’s used for energy – type 2 diabetes is linked to high levels of triglycerides.

Want to get more folic acid into your system? You’re in luck – there are many foods that are naturally rich sources of this vitamin. The recommended doses of folate for adults is 400 mcg per day, commonly found in many multivitamins. Be sure to check food labels for 100 percent of the daily value (DV) per serving size.

Grains

Look for the term “enriched” on grains items such as breads, cereals, pasta and rice.

Dark leafy greens

“Dark leafy greens are often considered some of the healthiest foods you can eat, but they also happen to be highest in folate,” Milner said. Consider adding more spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens and romaine lettuce to your diet for an immediate boost in folic acid.

“One large plate of these leafy greens can provide you with almost all of your daily requirements for folic acid, although careful meal planning to ensure daily intake of folate rich foods is recommended,” Milner said.

Brussel sprouts and broccoli are also high in folic acid.

Asparagus

“Asparagus is one of the most nutrient dense foods with folic acid, in addition to vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K and manganese,” DIETITIAN said. Eating one cup of boiled asparagus will provide you with 65 percent of your daily folate needs.

Beans, lentils and peas

Pinto beans, lima beans, green peas, black-eyed peas and kidney beans may not be your favorite things to eat, but they’re especially high in folic acid. A small bowl of any type of lentils will give you the majority of your recommended amounts of folate.

Citrus fruits

You know citrus fruits tend to be high in vitamin C, but they’re also rich sources of folic acid. Many fruits contain folic acid, but citrus fruits rank highest – oranges are especially high in the vitamin. Other folate-rich fruits include grapefruits, papayas, grapes, bananas, strawberries, raspberries and cantaloupe.