I would like to talk about vitamin B12, aka cobalamin, in relation to a plant based diet. This is an important vitamin to get in our diet and when you are on a plant based diet, it can be challenging to reach the recommended daily dose. Because of this, oftentimes, those who eat animal products will use this as a reason why people should not go plant based. Touting remarks such as "See? If you can only
get it from animal foods, then that’s natures way of saying we shouldn’t be vegan or plant based.”
First, there are plenty of ways to eat a healthy diet - including diets with or without animal protein. Everyone is different and it takes a lot of experimenting to see what works specifically for your own body. Depending on if you are relatively healthy, versus suffering from a chronic disease, or any other type of ailment, will determine the best type of diet to incorporate. One really needs to consider, not only what works for them on a physical level, but what also works mentally, emotionally, and for the long haul. AND… just to throw another spice in the mix, it will change! A diet that works for you in your 20’s or 30’s may not continue to work in your 50’s, 60’s and beyond. Again, this is about establishing a healthy lifestyle, not about any one diet, and trust me, there are plenty of ways to eat healthy.
That said, choosing to eat a whole foods plant based diet has absolutely amazing and incredible benefits. It’s hard to argue about an apple or broccoli. But, if you are strictly adhering to a plant based diet, then it is important to consider supplementing with a B12 vitamin, and let me tell you why.
B12 is a water soluble vitamin, created by bacteria and fungi, which are present everywhere around us - on the ground, in the oceans, sky, wind, rain etc. Plants nor animals make B12. It is the bacteria in our environment that produces the B12 in our large intestines. B12 however gets absorbed higher up in the gut, called the ileum (small intestine). So although plant based eaters may get enough B12 from their food, it’s the absorption which can get hampered. The bacteria that produce B12 grows in the gut of animals, which is why when we eat animal products, we get B12. But to be clear, the animals themselves are not making the B12. They are still getting the bacteria that produces B12 from the environment, just like plants.
Vitamin B12 is important for many things, protecting nerve cells, cell re-building, helping to build DNA and more. B12, along with other B vitamins, also helps to convert the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) into energy. In the past we more than likely got our B12 needs through the soil, streams and well water. But today, with all of the water being chlorinated and with pesticides and herbicides being sprayed on our crops, the bacteria that produce B12 is depleted. Animals eat feed and grass that contain small amounts in the soil and manure, which is how they get the bacteria to produce B12. We very well should not be eating manure!
Without sufficient B12 in our body, symptoms can appear such as fatigue, irritability, unable to focus or concentrate, tingling and numbness in extremities, depression and confusion. Prolonged B12 deficiency could lead to heart disease due to a homocysteine build up, which could lead to atherosclerotic plaque accumulating and clogged arteries. Most deficiencies however are not from vegans, or plant based eaters, and are not due to inadequate B12 intake. Most deficiencies are from impaired absorption. And note, those 50 years old and older are more at risk for decreased absorption.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 is as follows:
When looking for reliable B12 food sources, it is important to read nutrition labels. Look for the words “fortified” or “enriched” with B12. One thing to note, a lot of plant-based eaters use nutritional yeast as a means to attain appropriate B12 levels. Although nutritional yeast is high in B vitamins, it is not necessarily high in B12. If you are using nutritional yeast, look to make sure it is fortified with B12. And if you are getting your nutritional yeast from the bulk section, may I recommend you ask a knowledgeable employee to make sure. In our household we use Bragg Nutritional Yeast, which is fortified with B12.
It is also important to be aware of unreliable sources as well. When tested, fermented soy had varying levels of B12, and plant foods may have B12 on them but not in them. Some not so reliable food sources are nuts, legumes, fermented soy foods, seaweeds, spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens, amaranth, alfalfa, comfrey, and algae.
So, I hope I have cleared up some confusion about vitamin B12 and why it’s important for plant based eaters to consider supplementation. As always, it is best to consult with your physician, or a qualified healthcare provider, when incorporating any new supplement into your dietary regimen. You may even want to consider passing this article along to show them what you have learned. I wouldn’t mind… ;-)
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Becoming Vegan by BrendaDavis, R.D. & Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D.