How Much B12 Does a Vegan Need?

A plant-based diet is great for so many reasons, and you may be following this lifestyle for environmental, ethical, or health reasons to name a few. If it is the latter then you may be aware that vegans are often lacking in vitamin B12. This begs the question, how much B12 does a vegan need?

Well, the answer is complicated, but the daily recommended amount of B12 for adults is around 2.4 micrograms. Some sources believe this should be 4.7 mcg a day, and this is how much your body should absorb, not the intake. We’re going to take a look at how much a typical vegan diet needs to ensure they are not deficient in B12.

What is vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is a nutrient, naturally found in animal foods. This is why vegans may struggle to get enough of it in their diet. However, it can be added to foods (fortified) or supplemented. 

Vitamin B12 is needed to keep blood and nerve cells happy, make DNA, and will also prevent anemia, a blood condition that causes people to become tired and in some cases, weak.  

It binds to the protein of foods we consume so it can be absorbed in the small intestine and supplements are available in high doses to ensure the consumer gets the RDA. 

Vegan-friendly sources of vitamin B12

As B12 is not produced by plants, many vegans need to consume fortified foods and supplements as this is the only reliable source of B12 in a plant-based diet. 

Sources of B12 in fortified foods include some non-dairy milk products, nutritional yeast flakes, yeast extracts, breakfast cereals, and vegan spreads. Check the label to ensure you are getting a fortified version that contains B12. A daily intake of around 3 mcg will suffice but may require two servings of fortified products.

It should be noted that brewers yeast is commonly recommended as a source of B12. however, it does not contain B12 unless it has been added. Look for brewers’ yeast, fortified with B12. 

To supplement, take 3-10 mcg a day. This might seem like a lot compared to the recommended intake of 2.4 mcg a day. However, these quantities are considered safe and will provide enough to avoid being deficient. 

It is better to consume B12 less frequently as the body absorbs it better. 

Non-vegan food sources of B12

The common sources of B12 are meat and dairy-based, making them unsuitable to a vegan diet. These include red meat, liver, eggs, fish, shellfish, poultry, dairy products.

Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency

Vegans need to know the signs of vitamin B12 deficiency. Some of the most common indications of a lack of B12 include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling faint
  • Breathlessness
  • Headaches
  • Pale skin
  • Heart palpitations
  • Tinnitus
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

We all have those days where we feel a little sluggish, but continuous signs of a lack of energy are one of the first indications that you have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Since this is common in a plant-based diet, supplementing, it is important to actively add vitamin B12 into your diet.

What happens when you are deficient in vitamin B12?

Some of the most common results of not having enough vitamin B12 in your body for a prolonged time include anaemia, weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss, constipation, confusion, depression, poor memory, soreness of the tongue, and irreversible nerve damage.

These are enough symptoms to show the seriousness of staying on top of your B12 levels intake. 

So, how important is vitamin B12?

Many vegans and indeed, non-vegans will not give much thought to vitamin B12, However, it is fair to say that a plant-based diet does not provide complete nutrition in all areas. 

B12 is essential for allowing red blood cells to form and grow. These blood cells attach themselves to oxygen and carry them to your tissues. They deposit the oxygen around your body where it is needed and take carbon dioxide back to your lungs.

Red blood cells live for 3 months so the body must replenish them. Vitamin B12 also plays a role in building your immune system, this makes B12 intake even more important during pregnancy. 

Vitamin B12 also plays a role in your well-being, has links to emotional and mental well-being, and prevents the body from getting fatigued. 

Should I worry about B12 deficiency?

Yes, especially since it is difficult to tell when you are deficient. B12 is stored in the liver for up to 6 years, meaning anyone who switches to a plant-based diet within that time will likely not give their B12 intake much thought. 

However, even if you are not worryingly deficient now, you could be, and it could be too late to reverse. 

Why do our B12 levels decline? 

We absorb fewer B12 as we age as it needs to bind with a protein called intrinsic factor. If we do not make enough of this protein (which is produced in the stomach), we cannot absorb enough B12. This is even the case when you have a diet with plenty of B12.

As we age, the stomach acid we make also drops. B12 found in meat is already bound to animal protein so stomach acid is required to remove the B12 so it can be absorbed. Vitamin B12 that has been fortified in foods and supplements is not bound in the same way, making it easier for the body to absorb. 

This often makes the B12 found in a vegan diet better anyway, so there are certainly benefits to B12 consumption, even when following a plant-based diet. Adults over 50 should get their B12 from fortified foods or supplements because of their ability to absorb this vitamin from animal foods. Vegans are already taking advantage of this. 

Should vegans supplement vitamin B12?

Any deficiency can be detected by a doctor and supplements can be taken to treat low levels. In extreme cases, a doctor may advise a course of injections.

Never ignore the symptoms of low B12 intake and make it a priority in your diet.

But should vegans take a B12 supplement? The simple answer is yes. Many vegans get their intake through fortified foods and supplements. This is the easiest way to stay on top of your intake and ensure you are getting a sufficient amount in your diet. 

A well thought vegan diet should always include B12 in some form. Supplements offer a safe source of B12 that is easily absorbed. 

Final thoughts

A vegan diet has numerous plus points but when it comes to B12, there is no doubt that many plant-based diets are lacking in this important vitamin. 

With simple options for increasing the body’s intake, there is no reason why any vegan should be deficient. The daily recommended dosage is 2.4 mcg but it is safe to consume more. Many experts recommend high doses of B12 since it is not always absorbed so easily. However, the good news for vegans is that fortified foods and supplements are easier to absorb, and can be vegan-friendly. 

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