Eating a plant-based diet is a choice that generally helps an individual get on a path toward better health. Plant-based diets are chock full of many essential vitamins and nutrients, most of which are lacking in many modern convenience foods.
However, plant-based diets do lack one crucial vitamin – B12- and when an individual has a vitamin B12 deficiency, they can experience very serious health effects or even fatality in the most severe cases.
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is naturally found in animal foods or bacteria. Humans require a much smaller amount of vitamin B12 than other vitamins, only ten micrograms per day. Additionally, a B12 deficiency takes time to manifest in otherwise-healthy adults, and symptoms may not appear for up to five years, although some people may experience them within the first year after sources of vitamin B12 have been removed from their diet.
An individual with a vitamin B12 deficiency can experience many symptoms, including:
- Loss of energy
- Blurred vision
- Poor memory
- Personality changes
- Reduced sensitivity to pain
- Abnormal gait
- Sore tongue
- Loss of appetite
- Hair loss
- Heart palpitations
In most cases, the effects of a vitamin B12 deficiency are reversible once the individual begins receiving treatment. But some effects, such as nerve damage, cannot be reversed once they are experienced.
Severe cases of B12 deficiency can even be fatal. Currently, it is estimated that a third of the population does not get the recommended daily dose of vitamin B12. Vegans and vegetarians who may be limited in food options that contain vitamin B12 are at the highest risk for experiencing a B12 deficiency. Plant-based athletes are also at a higher risk for deficiency.
But all is not lost – there are still options for individuals to pursue a plant-based diet and have adequate B12 levels. But they must exercise caution and make a conscious effort to consume products fortified with B12. Common vegan foods that have been fortified include:
- Plant-based milk
- Some yeast products
- Some soy products
Vegetarians may have a slightly easier time finding foods that can meet their vitamin B12 recommendations. They can also consider the following options:
- Fortified cereals
While these foods may not be an option for vegans or individuals with a lactose-restrictive diet, the best option is looking for supplemented foods or taking vitamin B12 supplements.
The Vegan Society has several recommendations that vegans can follow to ensure they are getting enough vitamin B12.
- Eat fortified foods several times daily to achieve the consumption of at least three micrograms of B12 daily.
- Take a B12 supplement daily that provides at least ten micrograms.
- Take a weekly B12 supplement that provides at least 2,000 micrograms.
Any B12 consumed over the daily recommendation will not be absorbed, and the body will simply excrete it in the urine.
When taking regular supplementation, vegans can often achieve a healthier B12 level than most average adults, all while also pursuing a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle for themselves and the planet.
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