August 5, 2020
Are You Vegan? Are You Getting Enough Vitamin B-12?
Are you vegan? Are you getting enough Vitamin B-12?Source: The Burgundy Zine
Regardless of how long you’ve been vegan for, “How do you get protein?” is often one of the first things people ask you about your diet.
In fact, you may have rolled your eyes and started rattling off plant-based protein options as you read that last paragraph.
But when was the last time someone asked you, “How do you get vitamin B-12?” — I mean, you primarily sustain yourself off of fruits and vegetables, which are brimming with vitamins and minerals… You couldn’t possibly have a vitamin deficiency… Could you?
What is Vitamin B-12?
“Vitamin B-12 is a water-soluble vitamin obtained through the ingestion of fish, meat, and dairy products, as well as fortified foods,” says a 2017 American Family Physician Journal review.
Three of which, are foods excluded from the vegan diet.
What Are Fortified Foods?
Fortified foods refer are products with nutrients they wouldn’t naturally contain added to them.
For example, Nestlé cereals are fortified with, “riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folic acid, pantothenic acid, iron, calcium and, sometimes, vitamin D,” according to their website.
Foods are fortified to help close the nutrient gap by incorporating vitamins and minerals most people don’t get enough of in their daily diet.
“Many Americans are exceeding energy (caloric) needs but not meeting micronutrient (vitamin and nutritionally essential mineral) requirements,” says an Oregon State University article. “One analysis of US national survey data found that children and adults with high intakes of added sugars (>25 percent of energy intake; the upper limit recommended by the National Academy of Medicine) had lower dietary intakes of several micronutrients, especially vitamins A, C, and E, as well as magnesium.”
In a survey of over 16,000 children and adults, researchers found 94 percent didn’t meet the daily requirement for vitamin D.
Although many participants had micronutrient deficiencies, rates of Vitamin B deficiencies were rare among the group.
Which makes sense. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows the average American eats more than the daily recommended amount of meat, eggs, and dairy, while falling short on their fruits and veggies.
U.S. diets are out of balance with Federal recommendations. Infographic by the USDASource: U.S. diets are out of balance with Federal recommendations | USDA
What is the Daily Recommended Vitamin B-12 Intake?
The NIH Office of Dietary Supplements recommends 2.4 micrograms (µg) of Vitamin B-12 for those over the age of 14-years-old.
Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to increase their intake to 2.6 and 2.8 µg, respectively.
It’s also worth noting the body’s ability to absorb Vitamin B-12 is “largely limited by the capacity of intrinsic factor.” This is a substance produced by the stomach that allows the body to absorb Vitamin B-12.
“For example, only about 10 mcg of a 500 mcg oral supplement is actually absorbed in healthy people,” the NIH says.
Where Does Vitamin B-12 Come From?
According to a 2018 Experimental Biology and Medicine Journal review, Vitamin B-12 is created by certain bacteria and single-celled organisms. There are no known plants that create Vitamin B-12.
“The synthesized Vitamin B-12 is transferred and accumulates in animal tissues, which can occur in certain plant and mushroom species through microbial interaction,” the review explains. “In particular, the meat and milk of herbivorous ruminant animals (e.g. cattle and sheep) are good sources of Vitamin B-12 for humans.”
Cow and sheep both acquire Vitamin B-12 through the “symbiotic relationship with the bacteria present in their stomachs.”
“In aquatic environments, most phytoplankton acquire Vitamin B-12 through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, and they become food for larval fish and bivalves,” the review says.
Vegans and Vitamin B-12 Deficiencies
According to the NIH, Vitamin B-12 is required to help your body create red blood cells, DNA, and maintain proper cognitive function.
Strict vegetarians and vegans are among the high-risk group for developing a Vitamin B-12 deficiency, as seen in the AFP review.
Alcohol abuse and certain gastrointestinal disorders can also increase your risk of becoming Vitamin B-12 deficient.
“Metabolic Vitamin B-12 deficiency is highly prevalent in vegetarians in Australia, Germany, Italy and Austria, and in vegans (80 percent) in Hong Kong and India, where vegans rarely take Vitamin B-12 fortified food or Vitamin B-12 supplements,” says a 2014 Nutrients Journal review. “Similar deficiencies exist in northern Chinese rural communities consuming inadequate meat, egg, or dairy products due to poverty or dietary habits.”
While you may receive your daily Vitamin B-12 requirement through fortified foods in your diet, those on a raw vegan/vegetarian diet most likely aren’t.
Either way, it’s wise to speak with your doctor about having your Vitamin B-12 levels screened regularly if you’re a vegan or vegetarian — even if you’re not displaying symptoms of deficiency.
Vitamin B-12 Deficiency Symptoms
A Vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause a number of symptoms, including:
- Behavioral and mood disturbances (depression, memory loss, brain fog, etc…)
- Fatigue or weakness
- Heart palpitations
- Loss of appetite
- Nerve disorders including numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, or trouble walking
- Pale skin
- Smooth tongue
- Vision loss
A Vitamin B-12 deficiency can rear its head in a number of clinical manifestations, as well. These include:
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Leukopenia (low white blood cell count)
- Thrombocytopenia (low platelet count)
- Pancytopenia (low platelets, red, and white blood cells)
- Thrombocytosis (high platelet count)
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Cognitive impairment (including dementia-like symptoms and acute psychosis)
- Olfactory impairment (loss sense of smell)
- Hyperpigmentation (darker patches of skin)
- Vitiligo (lighter patches of skin)
- Jaundice (yellowing eyes)
- Glossitis (inflamed tongue)
According to a 2015 Clinical Medicine Journal review, a Vitamin B-12 deficiency may cause urinary incontinence, erectile dysfunction, mania, and delirium, too.
Vegan Options For Increasing Vitamin B-12 Intake
Organic parsley growing concept with freshly harvested root on vegetable garden soil groundSource: Envato Elements
According to Vegan Health, produce grown with an “organic” fertilizer (a.k.a., cow poo) may absorb Vitamin B-12.
“Mozafar concluded that plant uptake of B-12 from the soil, especially from soil fertilized with manure, could provide some B-12 for humans eating the plants, and may be why some vegans, who do not supplement with B-12, do not develop B-12 deficiency,” Vegan Health says. “Does this mean that organic foods are a good source of B12? No. These studies show that when B-12 analogues are placed in the soil, plants can absorb them.”
To clarify, Vitamin B-12 analogues are enzymes that resemble B-12, but are essentially useless to human B-12 enzymes. They’re considered “inactive.”
If you primarily eat organic produce, it’s possible you’re receiving some Vitamin B-12. However, it may still be an inadequate amount.
Rare Lion’s mane mushroom photographed on the Veluwe at the leuvenum forest in the Netherlands.Source: Adobe Stock
Some mushrooms contain a significant source of Vitamin B-12. But not all mushrooms contain it, says another 2014 Nutrients Journal review.
“Zero or trace levels of Vitamin B-12 were measured in the dried fruiting bodies of porcini mushrooms, parasol mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, and black morels,” the review explains. “In contrast, bodies of black trumpet and golden chanterelle contained higher levels of Vitamin B-12 than the abovementioned mushrooms.”
Dried shiitake mushrooms vary in their Vitamin B-12 content, but averaged about 5.6 µg in the study cited.
“The consumption of approximately 50g of dried shiitake mushroom fruiting bodies could meet the RDA [recommended daily amount] for adults, although the ingestion of such large amounts of these mushroom fruiting bodies would not be possible on a daily basis,” the review adds.
Lion’s mane mushrooms also contain “considerable amounts of Vitamin B-12,” which is has garnered them some attention among holistic medicine circles.
Seaweed and Edible Algae
Green Chuka Seaweed SaladSource: Adobe Stock
Dried green laver (also known as aonori) and purple laver are among the most widely consumed types of seaweed, according to the review. They also contain 64 µg and 32 µg of Vitamin B-12 per 100g (dried).
However, seasoned and toasted versions of these seaweeds contain lower amounts of Vitamin B-12. It appears the toasting process destroys the vitamin.
Additional studies have been done in rats that demonstrate the bioavailability of Vitamin B-12 from consuming seaweed. After 20 days of eating purple laver, the rat’s Vitamin B-12 had significantly increased.
“A nutritional analysis of six vegan children who had consumed vegan diets including brown rice and dried purple laver (nori) for four to 10 years suggested that the consumption of nori may prevent Vitamin B-12 deficiency in vegans,” the review adds.
Middle East black tea in a cup with dried fruits and nutsSource: Envato Elements
There is about 1 µg of Vitamin B-12 per 100g of dried black tea leaves. Bear in mind that the average tea bag weighs about one to two grams.
Research on rats shows the Vitamin B-12 in black tea is bioavailable. But even if you drank two liters of black tea per day, you would only receive 40 nanograms of Vitamin B-12.
…That’s 0.04 µg, which is only 1.6 percent of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin B-12.
High angle view of tempeh on tableSource: Adobe Stock
Although soybeans contain very low (if any) levels of Vitamin B-12, a fermented soybean-based food called “tempeh” contains 0.7 to 0.8 µg of B-12 per 100g.
This might occur as a result of bacterial contamination during the tempeh production process. Other fermented soybean products only contain minute levels of Vitamin-B12, though.
Nevertheless, tempeh is a very nutrient-dense, nutrient-rich food. In addition to Vitamin B-12, a three-ounce serving of tempeh contains:
- Calories: 162
- Protein: 15g
- Carbs: 9g
- Total fat: 9g
- Sodium: 9mg
- Iron: 12 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI)
- Calcium: 9 percent of the RDI
- Riboflavin: 18 percent of the RDI
- Niacin: 12 percent of the RDI
- Magnesium: 18 percent of the RDI
- Phosphorus: 21 percent of the RDI
- Manganese: 54 percent of the RDI
Close up view of bright multicolored breakfast cerealSource: Envato Elements
Many breakfast cereals are fortified to contain about 25 percent of the daily recommended Vitamin B-12 intake.
Some energy drinks, like Red Bull, are also fortified with Vitamin B-12. Go figure, right?
Well, this makes sense, too, as a boost to your Vitamin B-12 levels can clear up brain fog in those who have a deficiency.
In essence, the Vitamin B-12, caffeine, and sugar (unless you’re drinking sugar-free) are a mental-energy battery pack.
Nutritional yeast with a small wooden scoopSource: Envato Elements
By design, nutritional yeast serves to add a “cheesy,” “savory” flavor that some vegans may crave after kicking animal products to the wayside.
Fortified nutritional yeast contains a lot of different nutrients, from the complete range of Vitamin B to minerals and even protein, says a Healthline article.
But if you’re among the vegans who simply don’t care for cheesy, savory flavors, this option might be a bit of a turn off for you… Even if it could have a major, positive impact on your health.
The last, and arguably the most efficient (and consistent), way to increase your Vitamin B-12 intake is through a supplement.
Although some supplements rely on animal products, like fish oils, there are Vitamin B-12 supplements specifically designed for vegans.
For example, NOW’s 2,000 µg Vitamin B-12 supplement deliver a manmade form of the vitamin called “cyanocobalamin.” It also contains co-enzymes methylcobalamin and dibencozide.
At 2,000 µg, this works best as a weekly or bi-weekly supplement. However, you may need to take it daily in cases of severe Vitamin B-12 deficiency (or as advised by your doctor).
Deva’s Vitamin B-12 supplement is another weekly/bi-weekly supplement option. It contains 1,000 µg of Vitamin B-12, 2mg of Vitamin B-6, and 400 mcg of folic acid.
Vitamin B-12 deficiency is a concern for vegans and vegetarians that’s often swept under the rug or left unspoken. It can result in a variety of neurological symptoms, and in the worst-case scenarios, lead to serious clinical disorders.
However, not all hope is lost for the vegheads. The answer isn’t as simple as “eat some mushrooms” or “drink some black tea,” rather, it requires a combination of dietary additions.
Opting for organic produce, eating more mushrooms, drinking more black tea, and snacking on some seaweed are all great places to start. Enjoying a bowl of cereal or cooking with some nutritional yeast can also meet your daily Vitamin B-12 requirement in just one sitting.
Weekly, bi-weekly, or daily Vitamin B-12 supplements designed for vegans are also incredibly beneficial.
Even after you’ve become more mindful of your Vitamin B-12 intake, it’s important to keep an eye on your levels.
Let your doctor know that you’re a vegan or vegetarian and discuss how often you should have your levels screened. They’ll probably advise annual blood tests to make sure your Vitamin B-12 levels stay on target.
Additional Vitamin Deficiencies in Vegans and Vegetarians
Although vegan and vegetarian diets are rich in fiber, folate, magnesium, Vitamins C and E, these diets are susceptible to other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including:
As a result, you should familiarize yourself with signs of these deficiencies and speak with your doctor about having your levels screened regularly.
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