When you tell a meat-eater that you are a vegetarian or vegan, the first response is usually something like, “How do you get enough protein?” This question is somewhat of a joke in the vegan community, as there are plenty of foods that can make up a diet full of protein. Many of the foods in a high vegetarian protein diet may also fit in a vegan diet. But protein often isn’t the real problem – a vitamin B12 deficiency is.
Vegans, Vegetarians, and B12 Deficiency
Why do vegans have such a tough time attaining enough Vitamin B12? The vitamin is most often found in animal products. It is crucial in the formation of red blood cells, brain function, and DNA synthesis. Without it, you could face a whole host of problems. And yet, it’s suspected that many vegans and vegetarians are deficient in this crucial vitamin. However, there are things that you can do to ensure you are getting enough of this water soluble vitamin.
The liver stores years’ worth of B12, available for absorption whenever is needed. This means that even if you don’t get enough B12 today, you could be reaping the benefits of B12 you consumed last year. However, B12 doesn’t just depend on intake, but on absorption. B12 can only be absorbed when it combines with something called intrinsic factor (IF). Things like anemia can reduce the production of IF and the absorption of B12, making it unusable.
Vitamin C can actually block the absorption of vitamin B12 as well. According to research, if you take more than 500 mcg of vitamin C, either with meals or within one hour after meals, you could be diminishing the availability of vitamin B12. Calcium is another important factor in vitamin B12 absorption; a lack of dietary calcium could result in a lack of B12.
In other words, how your body uses B12 is a complicated process.
What can you do?
The key to any healthy diet is balance and education. You have to know what your body needs in order to provide it. Some vegetarian sources of B12 include fortified cereals and nutritional yeast, but both of these products are highly processed. Since it indeed is quite difficult to attain enough vitamin B12 if on a vegan or vegetarian diet, a B12 supplement can go a long ways in balancing the B12 absorption and providing the vitamin.
Finally, be aware of what B12 deficiency looks like. Although it is rare, many vegans leave their meat-free lifestyle because they don’t feel “healthy,” and being short on B12 could certainly contribute to these not-quite-right feelings.
Lethargy, rapid heartbeat, pale skin, easy bruising and bleeding, digestive distress, weight loss, and a sore tongue are all signs of B12 deficiency. Left unresolved it can lead to tingling and numbness in the extremities, depression, memory loss, and disorientation.