There seems to be a lot of concerns for vegans surrounding their B12 levels. Most people, vegan or not, can name plenty of plant-based sources for calcium, iron, and protein, but most come up short when asked where vegans get their B12. I must admit that I did not recently start educating myself on this very important vitamin until this past year. Barely two years into becoming vegetarian, I started to severely limit my intake of all animal products, including cheese, milk, and eggs. I still eat these things on occasion when I’m out, but nearly 100% of my diet during the week is completely vegan.
I was never concerned about not getting enough nutrients. I eat a pretty varied diet rich in whole grains and all sorts of veggies. But about a year ago, I had this really annoying eye twitch one day that didn’t go away for a week or so. I started searching on the internet for causes (there are many) and found that eye twitches are one of the symptoms of B12 deficiency. Of course, eye twitches are also the symptoms of a lot of other things as well, but it just got me thinking. I started to take a B12 supplement, but not every day. I quickly fell out of the habit of taking it and now, nearly another year later, the eye twitch has returned! Again, this may not have anything to do with my B12 levels, but I started taking my supplement again and the twitch stopped.
So I want to talk about B12 and the vegan diet and how extremely important this vitamin is for your brain, nervous system, and metabolism. It works with folate to synthesize DNA and is also essential to the formation of blood cells. Very important! B12 deficiency can result in milder symptoms such as weakness or tiredness, bleeding gums, diarrhea, and tingling in the fingers and toes, but it can also cause major problems such as difficulty walking, depression, memory loss, and dementia — irreversible neurological problems folks!
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for B12 for adults is 2.4 mcg (micrograms). However, if you start looking for B12 supplements you’ll notice that they come in much larger doses, most of them ranging from 500-5,000 mcg. This is because we don’t absorb all the B12 we consume. In fact, for every 500 mcg of B12 you consume, your body is only going to absorb about 10 mcg! The reason for this is pretty in-depth, so I’m not going to discuss it here, but there are plenty of lengthy scientific explanations out there that you to look up.
Most sources of B12 are animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. This is not because these foods contain B12 so to speak, but because microorganisms (namely bacteria) are the only organisms that make B12 and they just happen to live in the digestive tracts of animals or on their dead flesh. Animals eat foods that are contaminated with the bacteria and then the animal becomes the source of the bacteria, and therefore a source of B12. But B12 is created by a bacterial fermentation process and does not require animals to produce it; it’s bacteria-derived, not animal-derived.
Humans used to get some B12 from the soil, but because we scrub our produce squeaky clean (justifiably so because of pesticides) and because the soil we grow our crops in has been depleted of nutrients, vegetables are not a reliable source of B12. So where does a vegan get B12?
There are non-supplemental sources of B12 for vegans, namely nutritional yeast, fortified non-dairy milks, and fortified cereals. Nutritional yeast provides about 1,000 mcg of B12 and fortified cereals will easily supply the RDA for B12. However, from what I’ve concluded after researching B12 deficiency (which happens in both vegans and omnivores) the best way to ensure that you’re getting adequate amounts of B12 is to take a supplement. Now there are people out there who would criticize a diet that does not supply 100% of your needs, but I doubt that most people getting 100% of their nutritional needs met anyway, regardless of their diet. I’m not saying that a vegetarian/vegan diet is some miracle diet that’s 100% perfect. People stop eating meat for many reasons, but I doubt any of them would say it’s because they thought a meat-free diet would be 100% fool-proof. I stopped eating meat because I don’t want to support suffering, not so that I could brag about my B12 levels. I don’t think having to take one supplement means my diet is insufficient for my nutritional needs.
That said, you have several options for B12 supplements. You can get B12 shots from your doctor, which generally supply around 1,000 mcg. You can also take a B12 vitamin in pill form that you swallow, just like a multi-vitamin. There are also B12 oral sprays that you spray on your tongue, where it is absorbed by the blood vessels in your mouth. I personally take a sublingual tablet that you let dissolve under your tongue and it works the same way the spray does so that B12 is absorbed directly into your blood stream. This way, you don’t have to worry about whether or not it gets absorbed through the digestive process!
If you think you might have a B12 deficiency, you can get a simple blood test done by your doctor. Depending on how deficient you are, he or she may recommend certain doses, but I generally try to take 200 mcg every other day OR 1000 mcg once per week. If you’re forgetful like I am, you can take 3000 mcg once per month, but again, this all depends on your diet and your current B12 levels. There isn’t really too much of a chance that you’ll get too much. B12 overdose is rare. B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, so your body will discard the excess in your urine.
Deva, Pure Vegan, VegLife, Garden of Life (Vitamin Code), TwinLab, and Solgar are just a few supplement brands that offer vegan B12.