Do I need a Vitamin B12 supplement? By Glen Matten
On the subject of vegetarian diets, the B12 question has to be the most common one I get asked. It’s a simple enough question, given that we can only reliably get vitamin B12 from animal-based foods, and as seems to be true of all simple questions, the answer isn’t necessarily a straight forward one. Time for the B12 lowdown…
Vitamin B12 has a number of very important functions in the body, such as making red blood cells (as a result, lack of vitamin B12 can cause a type of anaemia called pernicious anaemia), maintaining a healthy nervous system, and helping us release energy from our food. We also need to get sufficient B12 to help the body process homocysteine, a toxic by-product of our normal metabolism that circulates in the bloodstream and is implicated in heart disease as well as a range of other conditions.
The first thing worth knowing is that vegetarian and especially vegans can easily find themselves lacking B12, and research has shown non-meat eaters to have higher levels of homocysteine than their meat-eating counterparts. So whilst we might think of vegetarian and plant-based diets as inherently cardio-protective ways of eating (which they undoubtedly are), this is one area they can fall short.
The good news for vegetarians is that it’s perfectly possible to get B12 from dairy products and eggs, which are excellent sources. However, if you eat a purely plant-based diet, sooner or later you’ll end up B12 deficient, placing vegans at the greatest risk. Alas, despite some propaganda that certain plant-based foods, like spirulina, contain B12, the truth is they don’t (they are rather analogues to B12, so effectively like a ‘false’ form the body can’t reliably use). That leaves those following purely plant-based diets with an important gap to fill and there are only two ways out of this particular conundrum. One option is to regularly consume foods fortified with vitamin B12. These might include fortified soy or rice beverages, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified meat analogs, or B12 fortified nutrition yeast. The other option is to take a vitamin B12 supplement. One or the other, or a combination of the two, is a must for vegans.