What you need to know about the vegan diet and Vitamin B12

vegan diet and Vitamin B12

Whether you are starting off on the vegan diet or you have been in it for quite some time, there is no denying that Vitamin B12 and its forms, such as adenosycobalamin, is among the most confusing nutrients in terms of its intake.

There are so many myths that surround a vegan diet and vitamin B12 in general, especially for vegan and vegetarian individuals, and many are not even sure whether they even need to take supplements at all.

This is not exactly helped by some vegan websites, which claim that the vegan diet is enough to meet their Vitamin B12 requirements, and they do not need supplements.

This view is not entirely wrong, but it is not exactly true either. This is why it is important to understand the role of B12, and how you can get it from your diet.

What is Vitamin B12 and why is it important?

Also referred to as cobalamin, Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble nutrient that plays an important role in your metabolism and general functioning of the cells.

For instance, it is among the most important nutrients the body uses in synthesizing DNA, initiating metabolism of amino acids and fatty acids, as well as the functioning of the nervous system.

The vitamin also happens to be the most complex in terms of its structure compared to other vitamins, as well as the largest.

The vitamin’s structure incorporates the rare element Cobalt (Co) in the center of its ring, making it very rare in natural supply but also highly valuable.

The lower your intake of this vitamin, the higher your chances of suffering from damage to the nervous system, heart disease, as well as anemia.

Because animal products contain the vitamin (especially grass and pasture fed animals), it will be in significant amounts in meat – which means that you will need to take supplements if you are on a vegan diet.

There are four forms of the vitamin:

  • Adenosylcobalamin – the most dominant form along with methylcobalamin. The body can use both forms interchangeably
  • Methylcobalamin – the type that exists naturally in the body, and works with certain enzymes to make red blood cells, initiate synthesis of amino acids, repair of DNA, and so on. found easily in oral supplements.
  • Hydroxycobalamin – naturally made by bacteria within your digestive tract, although you can make it in the lab through isolation.
  • Cyanocobalamin – an artificial form that can be poisonous in high doses due to the presence of cyanide, which interferes with the energy pathways in cells. However, in the small doses you get from fortified foods, the body can handle it well and convert it to less risky forms.

The best form among all these is methylcobalamin, although what you will get in fortified foods and supplements is cynocobalamin because of its longer shelf life.

How do you know if you are deficient in B12?

Here are some signs that this is the case.

  • Diarrhoea
  • Constant fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of hair
  • Shortness of breath
  • Gas and constipation
  • Lack of appetite
  • Memory and vision loss
  • Behavioral changes
  • Depression
  • Walking problems and muscle weakness

Children and infants will show these signs faster than an adult, and if not corrected, it can lead to falling into a coma or even death.

The deficiency of the vitamin is a serious issue that can become life-threatening, since it leads to long-lasting damage to your nerves and cells.

It is also a common issue unfortunately, especially considering that estimates show 3.2% of adults over the age of 50 have low levels of the vitamin while more than 20% are deficient.

You do not need to worry too much about an overdose of the vitamin though, because the body will remove it through your urine.

Where to find B12?

Because the vitamin is water-soluble, this allows it to be added as a supplement in some foods and occur naturally in others.

Animal products, particularly meat, are high in the vitamin because of eating pasture, as there are B12-producing bacteria that are naturally found in grass.

You might wonder why vegans and vegetarians lack the nutrient. Well, the many years of adding fertilizers and chemicals to soil to ensure the growth of crops has resulted in ruined quality of soil, and the vegetables we consume are over sanitized.

That means that you must take supplements if you follow these diets, so that you get enough.

The good news is that you will find many vegan products having been fortified with the vitamin. These can include:

  • Marmite and some forms of nutritional yeast, such as Meridian Yeast extract – the meridian yeast extract actually gives the body the recommended daily intake it requires, and marmite gives at least 40% of what you need even with one serving alone. This is because of the yeast fermentation involved in making these products.
  • Some soy products
  • Vegan cereals
  • Edible algae – this will work for vegetarians as well. The best bet would be going for the widely consumed algae forms, which are purple laver (the best in terms of B12 composition) and dried green laver.
  • Milks that are plant-based, such as almond milk
  • B12 supplements
  • If you happen to be vegetarian, you can also get the nutrient through certain foods that include:
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Fortified cereal
  • Cheese
  • Low-fat milk and plant-based milk
  • Nutritional yeast

If you are on a full vegan diet, you must follow one of the following recommendations, according to the Vegan Society (and the advice from your doctor):

  • Taking a weekly supplement that gives at least 2000 micrograms of the nutrient
  • Eating fortified foods twice or three times daily to get at least three micrograms of the vitamin
  • Taking one supplement daily, which gives you at least 10 micrograms

Final thoughts

From this article and the scientific research that has been done, it is clear that living a vegan lifestyle is a major risk factor for Vitamin B12 deficiency.

You will need to pay extra attention to what you consume, as that is not an option – especially when you eliminate animal products from your diet entirely.

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