I received an email telling me about an article all about B12. I’ve been told that I had low B12 before and didn’t really know what that meant. The conversation was about the problem omitting what it meant, what it could become and how to solve it. So I wasn’t feeling very empowered and I left it there. I didn’t ask questions or do much about it. It can’t be serious if we didn’t discuss what to do or what it meant, I thought! Anyway I’ve read this article now and feel the need to share it. Do you think it’s important? Have you got any experiences to share re lack of B12 or how to improve the level of B12 in the body?
There are two types of B12 deficiency: mild and overt.
Overt B12 Deficiency:
B12 protects the nervous system. Without it, permanent damage can result (e.g., blindness, deafness, dementia). Fatigue, and tingling in the hands or feet, can be early signs of deficiency. B12 also keeps the digestive system healthy.
Mild B12 Deficiency:
By lowering homocysteine levels, B12 also reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other diseases. Vegans and near-vegans who do not supplement with vitamin B12 have consistently shown elevated homocysteine levels. See the section Homocysteine, B12, Vegetarians, and Disease.
B12 is generally found in all animal foods (except honey). The overwhelming consensus in the mainstream nutrition community, as well as among vegan health professionals, is that plant foods do not provide vitamin B12. (Luckily, vitamin B12 is made by bacterial fermentation such that it does not need to be obtained from animal products.) Despite this, some vegan advocates still believe that “plant foods provide all the nutrients necessary for optimal health” and, therefore, do not address vitamin B12 when promoting the vegan diet. Other vegan advocates acknowledge the need for B12, but only as an afterthought.
The result is that many vegans do not eat B12 fortified foods or supplements. Many have developed overt B12 deficiency. In some cases, the symptoms have cleared up after taking B12 supplements, but not everyone has been so lucky.
Mahersh Shah · August 5, 2008 at 11:37 pm
The points made in the above article are interesting and valid.
I’m not a nutritionist, but I do follow a vegan diet and am active in promoting the vegan lifestyle which I believe is compassionate, ethical, healthy and very appropriate for humans, especially in the 21st century.
The following is what I have picked up from experts, experienced people and general reading.
Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient that vegans must source from fortified foods or supplements. Everything else we need can be obtained from plant sources. The reason, as the above article explains, is that the source of vitamin B12 is bacteria. In fact “vegan” (herbivorous) animals, e.g. sheeps and cows, also obtain their B12 from that bacteria, except in their case they have enough of that bacteria in their digestive system, hence no need for supplements.
So, yes, the B12 issue is one that all vegan humans need to be conscious of. For someone who has just changed to a vegan diet having been a non-vegan for several years, but who does not take B12 supplements or B12-fortified foods, it could take several months to several years before they become B12-defficient.
However, for young children being brought up on a vegan diet, care must be taken to ensure that they receive their vitamin B12 from the outset. Vitamin D is also very important for young children.
Some good quality, well-researched information about vitamin B12 and the vegan diet can be found from the Vegan Society at this link:
Since the vegan diet is not yet a mainstream diet (unlike a vegetarian diet), we vegans need to do our own research to help make sure our vegan diet is well-balanced and nutritious. In fact, by taking such care, the positive side effect is that you’re automatically likely to lead a very healthy lifestyle as a result. Fortunately, organisations like the Vegan Society, Animal Aid, VVF and others, have produced useful publications to help us. I personally think that a must-have for vegans is a beautifully designed nutritional wall chart which sets out which plant foods provide which key nutrients (and of course in the case of vitamin B12, it suggests fortified foods). Animal Aid sells this chart at their online shop:
Finally, the Vegan Society have teamed up with a supplement manufacturer to produce an affordable supplement that provides a range of minerals that can be difficult (though not impossible) for vegans to source in adequate amounts. B12 is included in the supplement of course. The name of the product is “Veg 1” and the current price is a relatively inexpensive Â£4.99 plus P&P for 90 tablets (recommended dose: 1 tablet daily for adults, 1/2 tablet for children under 12). Here’s an article about the supplement (in pdf format), which explains why the particular nutrients in the supplement have been chosen:
Heena Modi · August 6, 2008 at 12:59 am
Thanks a lot for this Mahersh.
I’ve recently purchased a supplement in the form of drops. I put a couple in a drink and down it goes. It’s as simple as that! 🙂
Sagar Shah · June 18, 2009 at 10:29 am
Here is a message I sent out on the Jain Vegans e-group regarding a question about the main health issues that vegans face:
I am going to try and answer this in terms of things that concern people, rather than just the ‘real issues’ that these face.
I think that B12 and Iodine should be the key things that people look out for. Because they are pretty much impossible to obtain naturally in a vegan diet and are often over looked by people.
Methods to obtain these without supplementation would include taking fortified foods (breakfast cereals, possibly fortified yeast based products (e.g. marmite), plant based milks) and supplements (veg1 / kelp supplement).
Linseed / Hempseed / Rapeseed oils are good sources of omega three fatty acids. Though I disagree that the unrefined rapeseed oil tastes that bad!
Many parents may be concerned about providing an alternative to cows milk from birth. The packaging on many plant based milks (e.g. soya) suggest they are not suitable for infants below a certain age. If they are unable to breast feed – they may be concerned about how appropriate alternatives may be for infants. I imagine that most vegans alive today are not vegans from birth, but have chosen to become vegans at some stage after the age of 7 so. In which case, vegan parents may be concerned about they are giving to their children. It is likely that research into this may be in its infancy.
My personal opinion is that breastfeeding for as long as possible would be the best option (though I am convinced that many of the benefits of breastfeeding are overstated because of an inability for researchers to undertake randomised experiments and an inability to control for other factors that may determine resliience to disease, later intelligence, risk of disrease etc).
I guess the biggest concern for parents of most children is whether they will be able to absorb appropriate levels of calcium from a vegan diet. This is important as bones grow an incredible amount through childhood – and the milk industry does lots of marketing about how it is necessary to have milk in order build strong bones.
I personally think that the government recommended levels of calcium for children, teenagers and adults would be quite hard to achieve on a pure plant based, wholefood diet (whether the government recommended levels are appropriate is another question). However, given that white bread (and possibly white flour) is fortified with calcium, and that many plant based milks are also fortified with calcium – I think these targets are definitely achievable without the use of direct supplements. One concern raised by Prof. Jane Plant @ Viva Veggie Show was that taking calcium supplements may be damaging for the stomache (by increase its ph) and so it is probably better to go for small quantities of fortified foods throughout the day rather than taking a calcium tablet at one go.
People reading this should note that I have heard that it is very easy and cheap to obtain powdered calcium (I tihnk in the form of calcium carbonate), which can be added into flour (for rotlis/bread), or any other products made at home, if people prefer to use organic flour (which is typically not fortified).
I would also add that getting sufficient levels of calcium is useless, unless the body has sufficient levels of vitamin D which help absorb it. For many Jains in the UK, who have dark skin, it may be impossible to achieve sufficient levels of vitamin D without supplementation (I think the general rule of thumb is you need to spend about 1/3 of the time in the sun that it would tpyically take you to burn). Vitamin D raises issues because many sources are non-vegan, and there are questions about how good a substitute the vegan D2 is for the non-vegan D3 – though many studies have found that it is a good substitute.
Another key issue for calcium absorption is salt/sodium intake. I have read that excessive salt will cause calcium to be passed out in urine, in which case it is very important to ensure that children do not take in excessive salt (combined with all the other reasons for not wanting too much salt).
I guess the biggest concern for elderly vegans would be the risk of osteoporosis. to my knowledge, much of what is written about calcium, vitamin, D and salt/sodium applies above as well.
As a further point, I think it should be noted than when people are young, the bone density is said to be able change very quickly. Heavier people and those who engage in lots of weight-bearing exercise are likely to have a higher bone-density than those without, and intuitively less likely to experience a fracture if they fall.
Engaging in weight bearing exercise (brisk walking, running etc) is thus very likely to be beneficial for individuals concerned about osteoporosis (and will have lots of other health benefits).
It shuld be noted that many members of the non-Indian UK Indian community suffer from osteoporosis. I have a strong feeling (though I cannot back this up with a paper) that is related to a lack of vitamin D and a rather sedentary lifestyle combined with excessive salt rather than a lack of calcium intake itself.
I believe one of the biggest concerns facing women (other than osteoporosis) is the risks associated with soya (phyto-oestrogens), menstrual cycles and cancer.
Although from what I hve read, both the theoretical and empirical relationships between soya intake and cancer (particularly breast cancer) are far from clear with some studies indicating it may be beneficial and some saying otherwise (possibly depending on whether you are pre or post menapausal). One key thing to remember is that phyto-oestrogens are less potent (in the way in which they mimic human oestrogens), than other mammal oestrogens (that obtained from cows), and given that milk is taken from pregnant cows, is is highly likely that cow milk contains a much higher proportion of mammal oestrogens than plant oestrogens found in soya. Unfortunatley, much less research has been done into the impact of these on cancer – but it is likely they are much more potent is there is a relationship.
So I guess the key things to remember are:
a) If there is relationship between cancer and taking external oestrogens, cows milk is probably worse than soya milk
b) Too much of anything is probably a bad idea – its good to have a balanced diet and not to have too muhc of anything, including soya milk
c) Being vegan does not mean excessive soya. There are lots of other plant based milks (rice, oat, almond, quinoa). Though soya is the cheapest and most easily available.
I think one of the biggest concerns amongst young men is the ability to get sufficient protein in the diet to be able to be sufficiently muscular or just not be thought of as scrawny and weak by non-vegetarian/vegan contemporaries (which I think is a reason why many people criticise a vegan/vegetarian diet).
Whether it is desirable (from a health perspective) to be big and muscular is another question altogether. I have never heard of anyone experiencing protein deficiiency in this country, and I would be surprised if anyone in this forum has done. Being big and muscular may be fine now, but if it is not possible to do suffficent exercise later on, it may be associated with health problems of being over-weight. On the other hand – I have read stories about how excessive protein absorption may have detrimneetal impacts on the absorption of other nutrients (can’t verify how reliable these reports arE)
Putting these health issues aside, I would agree its harder to get as muhc protein from a plant based diet. I had a friend at university who would eat a 200g can of (tuna) every day – getting ind 56g or so of protein. I would generally get 50g of protein a day from my diet on a good day (which generally included at least 1 or 2 servings of beans/tofu/soya based meat-substitute protein).
In response, I would say it is generally expensive to get protein on a vegan diet. But Ihave found the following foods good ways of getting it in (mostly soya based):
* Redwoods sausages – generally have 7g of protein each and are delicious
* Cans of lentil soup are good for a quick snack
* Vogels Soya/Linseed loafs contain 7g of protein a slice
* Provamel Soya milk contains around 7-9g of protein 250g
* Holland and Barrett sell a peanut loaf that has got quite a high percentage of protein /100g
* All the other general soces of protein: beans, nuts, seeds and lentils.
Not sure about the animal economics of becoming vegan:
– I would say that the overall impact one has on the environment/saving animals is probably quite low (relative to all the other things we do in life in the UK/US), esepcialyl given that the average person in the UK will have no more than 500g of say milk products a day, and the average cow will produce 20-30kg of milk a day, – so you would need just about 40-60 regular lacto-vegetarians to turn vegan to serisouly prevent one to save one cow (in a flow sense) from suffering.
– Neverthe less over a long time (e.g.) over a life time, people may be able directly help save many other animals through promoting animal friendly alternatives and encouraging others to do the same by leading from example – which is what I think is more important. It is only once we are able to demonstrate to the world that it is not necessary to consume animal products to be healthy and that it is immoral to consme animal products, that we will be able to seriously cut down the 53billion or so land animals killed each year for human food, clothing and entertainment.
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