Are you on a new path of eating a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet and concerned about whether or not the foods you’re eating will provide enough Vitamin B12 for your health? Maybe you’ve been eating this way for awhile now and still feel confused about what to do about B12.
If that sounds like you, take heart—you’re in the right place to get some answers. Below you’ll find a comprehensive look at B12, reasons you may want to supplement, and some helpful resources to further your research.
WHAT IS VITAMIN B12?
Vitamin B12 is a byproduct of bacteria that’s found in and on the foods we eat (both animal and plant foods). B12 is also produced in the intestine and mucosa of healthy humans. It’s a water-soluble vitamin that’s needed by the body for proper red blood cell formation, neurologic function, and DNA synthesis.
To be absorbed into the bloodstream and used by cells in your body, Vitamin B12 must combine with a protein secreted by the stomach called intrinsic factor. All of the body’s cells need Vitamin B12 to function normally, but certain tissues need more of it than others. These include the gastrointestinal tract, nervous system, and bone marrow (where blood cells are produced).
WHAT ARE SYMPTOMS OF B12 DEFICIENCY?
Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Neurologic conditions
- Poor memory
- Tingling of hands and feet
- Weight loss
Serious neurologic conditions involving nerve degeneration and paralysis can result from a B12 deficiency so it’s important to detect deficiency and its cause early to avoid irreversible damage.
WHY YOU MAY BE DEFICIENT
As it relates to B12 deficiency, it’s actually common for plant-based and meat eaters alike to experience it. Let’s take a look at four reasons people become deficient in B12:
Our Produce Doesn’t Contain Vitamin B12
Since the beginning of time, people have received some B12 directly from fruits and vegetables. Plants don’t make a lot of vitamins; they soak them up from soil through their roots. Most vitamins we obtain are made by bacteria in soil. These days, chemicals sprayed on soil used to grow produce sterilize bacteria and result in a loss of B12.
We Wash Our Produce
With current agrochemical food production, it’s understandable that people wash their produce to remove pesticide residues. In the past, when people ate vegetables fresh from the ground, the small amount of soil on them was also consumed and contained B12.
One way to overcome this challenge is to grow your own produce using richly composted soil. Another way is to get to know the organic farmers at your local farmers markets and see if they use high-quality soil that can give you a boost in B12 intake.
We Can’t Absorb the B12 We Eat
Both meat eaters and plant-based eaters can be deficient if they’re lacking intrinsic factor (IF) or have a condition that impairs absorption. Overconsumption of dietary fat has been linked to absorption problems. This is because the B12 uptake sites in the intestine become clogged when there’s excess fat in the diet. This reduces the ability of B12 to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
If you’re concerned about this, your doctor can easily do a test to see if your body has sufficient IF.
Medical B12 Standards Are Artificially High
Unfortunately, vitamin B12 tests may detect a deficiency even when B12 numbers are normal. This is because tests for many people who are consuming foods that are “enriched” with a synthetic form of B12 show an abnormally high level, which has become the medical standard.
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WHY YOU MAY WANT TO SUPPLEMENT
The decision to take a B12 supplement can be a difficult and confusing one. There are different schools of thought and varying advice in different health circles. My best advice is to only consider taking supplements when you’ve tested low and feel you truly need the additional nutritional support.
And, of course, I recommend eating a low-fat WFPB diet to help ensure good health of your digestive tract and gut bacteria—two important factors when it comes to maintaining a healthy level of B12 in the body.
That said, if you’re concerned, peace of mind is more important than uncertainty and worry so you may want to take a viamin B12 supplement. I’ve come to trust Dr. Michael Greger, and you can find his recommendation here.
To read more about supplementing if you’re eating a vegan or plant-based diet, read my article, “Should Vegans Be Taking Supplements? And, Which Ones.”
To learn more and bolster your confidence in making the right decision about Vitamin B12 and supplementation, I encourage you to do your own research. Here are a few resources I think you’ll find helpful:
- Dr. Michael Greger: The Optimal Vitamin B12 Dosage for Adults
- Dr. Michael Greger: The Best Type of Vitamin B12
- Today’s Dietitian: Vitamin B12 and the Vegan Diet