The Vitamin B12 Deficiency Myth
If you are a starting-out vegan, or even a seasoned one, one of the things that you’ll commonly hear is that a vegan diet causes a deficiency in vitamin B12 and some say you may need to take b12 shots. This is a serious allegation, because a deficiency in B12 can have serious health consequences.
Among others, a deficiency in vitamin B12 may lead to anemia and chronic fatigue syndrome. B12 is necessary for the synthesis of red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. The oxygen is used to burn up food and thus provide energy and therefore a lack of it leads to fatigue and in more serious cases, anemia.
Deficiency in vitamin B12 can also lead to depression and over a long period of time, can cause brain damage. B12 is necessary for a healthy central nervous system, and thus its association with depression.
So where is the myth derived? For many years, B12 was believed to be only available in animal products like meat, milk, eggs and cheese. Anyone who did not take these therefore was considered to be lacking in B12, and any sign of anemia or depression was attributed to their diet.
Well, science has gone a long way to disprove this:
- B12 is a microbe or friendly bacteria, so no food really contains it (although it can be found on the surface of some foods). This microbe lives naturally in the human body within the digestive tract, and it’s triggered and absorbed by taking in of the right kinds of foods, not necessarily animal products. There are indeed many foods that vegans can take to trigger release and absorption of B12 into the blood stream.
- Studies over the years have revealed that non-vegans are more likely to suffer a B12 deficiency than vegans. Though not solidly proven, it is thought that this could be because of 2 reasons: meat eaters take in way too much B12. Over-intake of B12 causes lower absorption and therefore can lead to deficiency. The other argument is that because a meat eater’s diet does not allow the microbes in the intestinal tract to release B12, they may end up with deficiency. On the other hand, a vegan’s diet keeps their digestive tract healthy and clean and gives a conducive environment for B12 to thrive and be absorbed.
- Vegans are more likely to get B12 into their systems. Microbes that are on the surface of the food that we eat contain B12. During cooking, these microbes get destroyed and B12 gets lost along with that too. Vegans mostly eat food that does not require cooking. This makes them more likely to have higher levels of B12 than non-vegans.
- Naturally, people on a plant diet have cleaner digestive tracts that have healthier bacteria – probiotics – that encourage release and absorption of B12 into the body.
Whatever the arguments, the fact is that more non-vegans than vegans suffer a B12 deficiency. It could be attributed to the fact that vegans generally watch their diets more closely to ensure that they get all that the body requires.
Either way, if you are a vegan and would like to put the myth to rest once and for all, visit your GP. Through a blood test, he will tell you if you enough B12 in your body. Watch out for signs of lethargy and depression too – they can be as a result of lack of B12.
To learn more about sublingual B12, its benefits and its sources, click here.
The Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet: The Vitamin B12 Myth by Erin Brennan
Goldman: Cecil Textbook of Medicine, 22nd ed., page 1056
“Increased Urinary Methylmalonic Acid Excretion in Breast-fed Infants of Vegetarian Mothers and Identification of an Acceptable Source of B12″ (Specker B. Am J Clin Nutr 47:89, 1988)
“Vitamin B12 and Seaweed” Van Den Berg H. Lancet 1:242, 1988)