Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is an important vitamin for the health of our nervous system, and is also needed for the formation of red blood cells and DNA synthesis. Ingesting the proper amount of vitamin B12 is a constant preoccupation for vegans because this substance can only be found in animal products.
But this doesn't mean that veganism is inviable at all! First, vegan B12 supplements can be easily found everywhere and they are just as effective. This is important considering our health, as animal products have been successively linked to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular problems and diabetes.
It is also important to remember that B12 is an important supplement even for those who eat meat. There's a large proportion of people who eat animal products, including meat, who also present with a B12 deficiency, which makes it one of the most frequent vitamin deficiencies worldwide!
Here's everything you need to know about the B12 vitamin:
Why is B12 so important?
This vitamin is fundamental for functions such as:
Red blood cell production and avoiding the risk of anemia;
In pregnant women, it is fundamental to avoid miscarriages and brain and spinal cord birth defects;
Helps with bone health, making them stronger and more resistant;
Lack of B12 might be related to depression, as this vitamin is important for synthesizing and metabolizing serotonin;
Helps prevent brain atrophy and the loss of neurons, therefore helps our memory performance and cognitive function;
Promotes hair, skin and nail health.
I'm vegan, do I have to supplement it?
Yes, you do. Naturally, vitamin B12 is available only in animal products because it's produced by bacteria that live inside their gut flora. This means that if you don't eat meat, eggs or dairy, sooner or later you'll have to supplement it. It is believed that some algae, mushrooms and yeasts have vitamin B12, but even if it's true it's unlikely that this level of consumption will be enough to provide the recommended daily amount. The best way of knowing is by consulting your physician and having regular blood tests.
What's the ideal intake of vitamin B12?
It all depends on your life stage, as the amount increases throughout one's life and depends on your body’s composition. An adult needs 2,000 mcg weekly, on average. Pregnant women need 2.6 mcg and breastfeeding teens and women, 2.8 mcg per day. Again, only a physician will be able to properly decide what the ideal daily intake for you should be.
What are the symptoms of B12 deficiency?
You may be B12 deficient if…
If you feel constantly tired, sleepy and depressed;
You have dermatologic disorders such as hyperpigmentation or loss of skin color, nail discoloration, hair changes;
You feel your memory is poor;
You're having constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss;
You're experiencing neurological issues, for example, numbness, tingling in the hands and feet, confusion, dementia.
If I eat fortified foods, do I need to supplement it?
Probably. Fortified foods such as cereals and plant-based milk could be of extra help, but it's unlikely that they will provide all the B12 you need on a daily basis.
If I need to supplement, doesn't it mean a vegan diet is not healthy or natural?
Not at all. B12 deficiency is one of the most frequent vitamin deficiencies worldwide. In the United Kingdom and the United States the prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency is around 6% in people aged less than 60 years, and closer to 20% in those aged more than 60 years. In the Global South, this number is even higher. In Latin America, approximately 40% of children and adults have a clinical or subclinical deficiency. The deficiency can be caused by genetic factors, eating habits, inadequate gastric or intestinal absorption, bariatric surgery or bowel resection surgery, gastrointestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease or drug use (for example, medicine for diabetes).
With the adequate supplement of vitamin B12, you'll only need to follow a healthy and varied vegan diet to get all the nutrients your body needs.