The importance of vitamin B12

When going vegan people often bring up the difficulties of watching your calcium intake, your protein intake, and your iron intake. Whilst a decent calcium and protein intake is easy to maintain (I get more calcium and protein than most omnivores), iron is something that should be watched. But ensuring you get enough iron isn’t too hard. The only real threat of deficiency in a vegan diet is vitamin B12. B12 comes from bacteria – no foods naturally contain it – it isn’t intrinsically in meat and animal products. It is essentially created by bacteria. Bacteria obviously thrive in animal products and meat, creating vitamin B12. I have heard some reports of ensuring B12 can be obtained by eating unwashed vegetables, but I wouldn’t call this a reliable (or necessarily a safe) source of B12.

So why is B12 important? And are vegans destined for deficiency?

B12 assists ensuring an effective working nervous system, and works to help with red blood cells. As you can imagine from this, a sign of deficiency is anaemia, so couple B12 deficiency with iron deficiency and you have a double whammy of anaemia. One of the other main benefits of B12 in the diet is that it helps to release energy from food. So, B12 is definitely important, but what are the risks of being deficient in it? Well, as mentioned, anaemia is a key problem in B12 deficiency. A more serious lack of B12 can result in pregnancy difficulties, heart problems, and/or damage to the nervous system. Some doctors have listed B12 deficiency as a cause of ME.

This is probably sounding pretty worrying, but don’t let this put you off veganism. The good news is that it’s very easy to stay on top of B12. The body needs an exceptionally tiny amount of the vitamin to stay healthy, and even if you’re not getting that then signs of deficiency will only start to rear their head after around 5-6 years as your body holds onto a huge supply of B12, storing it as though it were fuel for a car. This means there’s plenty of time to ensure you are back on track with your intake of the vitamin. As for where you’ll find it in a vegan diet, that’s also easy.

Most soy milk/plant milks are fortified to contain extra calcium and B12, as is a lot of tofu, so you’ll easily be getting enough from just a standard vegan diet probably. Often meat substitutes are fortified with B12. On top of this, many cereals are fortified with it. Another great source (if you can stomach it) is yeast extract, such as Marmite and Vegemite. If you’re taking a multivitamin pill, that’s also likely to have B12 in it.

What I’m trying to highlight is that B12 should be noted as important but it should not be a worry.

It has actually been highlighted that obtaining B12 from fortified foods makes it both more absorbable and obtainable that maintaining B12 levels from animal products. The US Institute of Medicine actually states “because 10 to 30 percent of older people may be unable to absorb naturally occurring vitamin B12, it is advisable for those older than 50 years to meet their RDA mainly by consuming foods fortified with vitamin B12 or a vitamin B12-containing supplement,” making it clear that fortified foods are more efficient. Indeed, it has been said that a well monitored vegan diet is far less at risk of B12 deficiency than the average omnivore.

Hopefully, from this you can see that B12 should not be too much of a worry. It is just important to highlight it, and ensure that you avoid any claims that B12 can be consumed through unwashed vegetables. Whilst this may be true, there is nothing wrong with being careful about what you eat. This also doesn’t mean a vegan diet is unnatural – what is natural about killing more animals every five days than the number of people who’ve died in every recorded war and genocide in human history (click the link, it’s a pretty interesting article).

I hope this has been of some use, and I apologise if I got anyone worried at first about their health. If you need any more info on B12, check the sites below:

Excellent Vegan Society page on B12

Vegetarian Resource Group page on B12

In-depth look at B12, although beware her advice about not cleaning vegetables…

Love it or hate it, it's a good source of B12

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