Vitamin B12 helps to keep nerve and blood cells healthy. The consequences of not getting enough are extremely serious. People who do not get enough B12 can suffer from weakness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pale skin, diarrhea, hair loss, and mental conditions.
In severe cases of deficiency, a lack of vitamin B12 can cause death. Most vegans get enough B12 to survive, but are sometimes borderline deficient. In order to maintain optimal health, it is really important that you make sure you're getting enough.
Humans get vitamin B12 from the food that they eat. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian or an omnivore, it's extremely important that you monitor your vitamin B12 intake and take supplements if you aren't getting enough. It is estimated that approximately one third of the general population does not achieve the recommended daily dose of vitamin B12.
What is B12?
Vitamin B12 is a water soluble vitamin also known as cobalamin. It is involved in the metabolism of every single cell in the human body, and it is vital for optimal health.
Vitamin B12 is produced in the guts of animals, including human beings. It is vitally important for proper cell function. Unlike other vegan animals, such as sheep and cows, humans produce B12 further down their digestive tract, which means we can't absorb our own. We excrete it instead, and must search for the vitamin from other sources.
Humans only need around 3 μg (micrograms) of vitamin B12 a day, but the consequences of B12 deficiency can be deadly, so it's important that you make sure you are getting as much as you need.
It is unlikely that a plant-based diet alone will supply you with an adequate amount of vitamin B12. You must make sure that you're eating and drinking products that have been fortified with the vitamin, or take special supplements to avoid deficiency.
How do I know if I'm B12 deficient?
If you’re deficient in B12, you might find you have the following symptoms.
- Hair loss
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Lack of appetite
- Weakness of muscles
- Issues with walking
- Vision loss
- Memory loss
- Behavioral changes
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin B12 deficiency can be extremely serious. Older people are particularly vulnerable to the condition, and people who have had weight loss surgery and those with illnesses that impact food absorption are also at risk.
You can find out if you have a B12 deficiency through a blood test with your doctor. If you are deficient, it is important that you increase your daily dose of B12 immediately, as not doing so can cause lasting damage to your cells and nerves.
An overdose of vitamin B12 has no consequences, so you shouldn't worry about getting too much, as any extra will be excreted in your urine. If you're worried about your vitamin B12 intake, you should start taking supplements or eating fortified foods immediately.
Where is B12 found?
Vitamin B12 is a water soluble vitamin that is found naturally in some foods and added as a supplement to others.
It’s produced by bacteria found in soil and in the guts of animals. Because non-vegans eat the flesh of animals who produce b12 within their guts, they tend to consume more B12 than vegetarians and vegans do, but eating meat doesn’t mean that you are not B12 deficient. Both vegan and non-vegan individuals suffer from B12 deficiency.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimates that 3.2 percent of adults over 50 have a seriously low B12 level, and 20 percent are borderline B12 deficient. Vitamin B12 deficiency is not a vegan issue, it's a human issue.
Humans produce vitamin B12 in their guts, but the process happens too far through our system to be absorbed by our blood, and it is instead excreted from our bodies.
Wild animals with vegan diets tend not to be vitamin B12 deficient because they accidentally eat soil and excrement, something not many humans are willing to do.
Why don't vegans get B12?
Intensive farming has ruined soil quality, and our vegetables are over sanitised because we don't want to eat animal faeces or pesticides.
This means that the B12 we used to get naturally from plants is no longer available to us, and vegans must supplement their diets to make sure that they're getting enough.
How to get B12 on a vegan diet
If you are vegan, there are vegan sources of B12 you should be making a conscious effort to consume. You'll find vegan products that are fortified with B12 in most supermarkets. Great sources of vitamin B12 foods vegans can eat include:
- Vegan cereals
- Plant based milks
- Some soy products
- Some nutritional yeast
- B12 supplements
Always check the packaging to make sure that the products you are purchasing are fortified with vitamin B12, and choose the brands that are.
What vegetarian foods have vitamin B12?
If you're a vegetarian, you can get B12 by ingesting the following:
However, you should be aware that there are health benefits to a nutritionally balanced vegan diet, and consequences to the consumption of milk and eggs.
The lactose in milk can be difficult for humans to ingest, and can cause nauseu, gas and bloating. There are also links between the consumption of milk and broken bones, as well as acne, high cholesterol and the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Eggs are chicken menstruation, and they each contain 187 mg of cholesterol. In 2011, they were listed as a 'food to reduce' by the US Government. Studies have shown that eating two hard boiled eggs a day increases a chemical called TMAO in the blood. This chemical is intrinsically linked to heart attack, stroke and death. Eating two eggs increases TMAO in the bloodstream in a matter of minutes.
There are safer ways to get the vitamin b12 your body needs without eating products that cause animal suffering and can potentially make your sick.
B12 supplements for vegans
If you're vegan, you should be taking vitamin B12 supplements. You can buy vegan vitamin B12 supplements from most major health food stores, such as Holland and Barrett.
Vitamin B12 supplements are extremely important for vegans, because intensive farming and poor soil quality means that people who eat a plant-based diet will not get the B12 they need for proper cell function unless they are eating foods that are fortified with it.
The consequences of vitamin B12 deficiency are extremely serious, so it’s really important that you make sure you are getting enough B12 in your diet. The easiest way to do this is to take a supplement.
How much B12 do I need?
The Vegan Society recommends taking the following actions to make sure that you are getting enough vitamin B12:
- Eat fortified foods two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms of B12 a day.
- Take one B12 supplement daily providing at least ten micrograms
- Take a weekly B12 supplement providing at least 2,000 micrograms
Do not worry about taking too much B12. If you do, your body will excrete the excess out in your urine.
I heard I can get vitamin B12 from spirulina/nori/barley grass/raw foods
This is not true. Plant-based sources of vitamin B12 have repeatedly been shown to be inadequate through scientific research, and relying on them is dangerous.
The only reliable way to get B12 as a vegan is to take supplements or eat foods that are fortified with the vitamin.
If you're pregnant or a nursing mother, it is incredibly important that you do not rely on your plant-based diet to supply you with a recommended dosage of vitamin B12, as doing so could harm your child.
You cannot overdose on vitamin B12, so it's always worth taking a supplement to make sure that you're getting enough.