Vitamin B12 is one of the most talked-about topics when it comes to veganism. And that makes sense because vegans have a high risk of B12 deficiency.
The body cannot produce the vitamin, so to meet your need, you have to take it in with your food.
But the problem is that most plant foods don’t have any vitamin B12. And the ones that do only have tiny amounts; so, they are not a reliable source.
So, what can you do to meet your need as a vegan?
Well, be sure to read this article until the end to learn everything you need to know about vitamin B12 as a vegan.
We will cover:
- – why vitamin B12 is important (also available as a video)
- – what vegans sources of B12 are (also available as a video)
- – how much vitamin B12 you need
- – what the best supplements are (also available as a video)
- – how much & how often to take your supplements (also available as a video)
- – how to check your B12 levels
- – what deficiency symptoms you should look out for
- – and if it is problematic if you take too much B12.
Are you ready to learn all of that and more?
Awesome! Let’s go! 😃
Why is vitamin B12 important?
Let’s start by talking about why you should care about your vitamin B12 levels. The goal is to give you a little motivation to take your vitamin B12 need seriously. 😉
Vitamin B12 has a lot of vital functions in the body.
For example, it:
- – is involved in the production of DNA and blood cells
- – plays a role in energy and fat metabolism
- – acts as a coenzyme
- – degrades the amino acid homocysteine (this is a crucial function that we’ll cover in more detail shortly)
- – is needed to produce serotonin (a hormone affecting blood pressure, mood, digestion, and the sleep cycle, among others)
- – and protects the brain and central nervous system.
What are the consequences of a vitamin B12 deficiency?
A Vitamin B12 deficiency is very serious because it can lead to anemia (low count of red blood cells), irreversible neurological damage, and blood production problems.
Moreover, when you are low in vitamin B12, the body can’t break down the amino acid homocysteine.
This, in turn, can promote atherosclerosis, heart disease, and pregnancy complications.
How much vitamin B12 do you need?
Adults need to take in 4 mcg of vitamin B12 every single day.
So, if you get your B12 from fortified foods, then you need to make sure you consume at least 4 mcg B12 per day (more on that below).
However, if you choose to supplement, the amount you have to take in is substantially larger because the absorption rate from supplements is so low.
The recommended intake with supplements is 50 mcg a day or 2000 mcg a week (more on that in just a bit)
Vegan sources of vitamin B12
As we briefly touched upon in the introduction, plants are not a reliable source of vitamin B12.
Some foods, such as shitake mushrooms, fermented foods, and nori algae, contain small amounts of the vitamin but not nearly enough to reliably meet your vitamin B12 need through them.
Also, it is unclear how well the body can absorb the B12 contained in these sources.
Therefore, even if a food has vitamin B12, that doesn’t necessarily mean the body can use it.
So, if you want to get your B12 from plants, what you need to do to meet your need reliably is to consume foods fortified with vitamin B12.
Vegan foods commonly fortified are:
- – Breakfast cereals
- – Plant drinks
- – Nutritional yeast
- – Soy products (tofu, tempeh, etc)
- – Vegan spreads
- – Vegan meat alternatives.
Whether or not you can meet your B12 need with these foods depends on:
1) with how much vitamin B12 these foods are fortified with
2) how often you consume them throughout your day.
According to Dr. Greger, one of the most trusted physicians advocating for a plant-based lifestyle, you need to eat at least 3 servings of B12 fortified foods throughout the day, with one serving containing at least 190% of the daily value.
You also need to make sure that each serving is at least 4-6 hours apart.
The reason for this is that your body can only absorb up to 1,5 – 2 mcg B12 in the given timeframe, even if you take in more than that.
Although it is possible to meet your vitamin B12 need through fortified foods, choosing this route can create a lot of room for error.
For example: with how much B12 a product is fortified with can vary significantly from brand to brand and product to product.
It also differs from country to country. While fortified foods are widely available in the US, here in Europe, or at least Austria, where I’m from, not many foods are fortified.
- 1. You are very careful with the products you buy
- 2. How much of them you consume
- 3. How often you consume them
- 4. and are meticulous about getting regular blood tests done that measure your B12 levels
it may not be a good idea to rely on fortified products solely.
For that reason taking a vitamin B12 supplement is often the best, easiest, and most reliable choice for vegans.
A Vegan’s Guide to Supplementing Vitamin B12
There are a few different kinds of supplements available.
But the most reliable ones are sublingual supplements such as drops, chewable tablets, lozenges, and sprays.
Most people are also fine taking regular tablets and capsules.
But if you have an illness affecting your gastrointestinal tract or you take specific kinds of medications (such as Proton-pump inhibitors), then your body may not be able to absorb vitamin B12 from these sources.
As a result, you may develop a deficiency, even if you take a supplement regularly.
This is one reason why getting regular blood tests (see below) that measure your B12 levels is so important, even if you supplement and are generally healthy.
Aso, for best absorption, take supplements on an empty stomach.
Vitamin B12 injections are an alternative to oral supplements.
However, this option is often only recommended if you have a diagnosed deficiency and is not commonly used as a preventive measure.
Also, injections tend to be more expensive than regular supplements.
Many multivitamins also have vitamin B12 in them and, thus, may help you meet your B12 need.
But the problem with multivitamins is that they are not suited to your individual nutritional needs and requirements.
You might get too much of some vitamins and minerals (which can harm your health) and not enough of others (which can also be harmful).
Also, sometimes the combination of ingredients in a multivitamin can destroy active versions of B12 and inhibit transport.
So, just because the label says that it has B12, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your body will actually be able to use it.
You may also be able to meet your vitamin B12 need by using fortified toothpaste twice a day for at least 2 minutes.
At the time of writing, the only B12-fortified toothpaste studied for effectiveness is this one from Sante (not sponsored).
Although using toothpaste works for many people, it doesn’t work for everyone, so regular blood tests are highly encouraged.
Also, using toothpaste is not recommended if you have low B12 levels or are deficient.
How much of a vitamin B12 supplement should you take?
You just learned about the different ways to meet your vitamin B12 need as a vegan.
If you’ve concluded that taking a supplement is the best choice for you, then you may wonder how much of your supplement you should take and how often you need to take it.
Again, there are two main options.
Option #1 is that you aim to take in at least 2000 mcg of vitamin B12 every week.
Then how often and how much of your supplement you need to take depends on how much vitamin B12 is contained in the one you are using.
So, for example, if your supplement has:
- – 1000 mcg, then you need to take it 2x a week.
- – if it has 500 µg, you need to take it 4x a week
- – and if it has 2000 mcg, you only need to take it 1x a week, and you are good to go.
Option #2 is that you choose to supplement daily.
Then you need to make sure you get in at least 50 mcg of vitamin B12 every day. So, pick a supplement containing 50 mcg of B12 and take that every day.
(When choosing this option, you don’t need to worry about getting to the recommended weekly intake of 2000 mcg).
Cyanocobalamin vs. Methylcobalamin
When you shop for vitamin B12 supplements, you’ll notice that there are supplements that contain cyanocobalamin and others that contain Methylcobalamin.
So which one should you choose?
Cyanocobalamin is the synthetic version that the body needs to convert to the natural B12 form because it can use it. It is the cheaper and more stable option.
Methylcobalamin is the natural form. It is more expensive and less stable, so you may have to supplement larger doses.
Also, it is light-sensitive, so if you don’t store it correctly, the supplement may lose (some of) its effectiveness.
Often supplements with cyanocobalamin are recommended because they are more stable, but both are effective and reliable ways to meet your B12 need.
Because the consequences of a deficiency can be so severe and possibly irreversible, it is recommended to get regular blood tests done that measure your B12 levels even if you take a supplement regularly.
How to test for a B12 deficiency?
Vitamin B12 is stored in the body for a few years.
For that reason, you only need to get a blood test done once every two years (but of course, you can get one done more frequently if you want).
When you set up your appointment, make sure that either holotranscobalamin or methylmalonic acid is measured because these values are the most reliable.
Holotranscobalamin detects a deficiency the earliest, so you can treat it and make adjustments to how you supplement before any serious consequences occur.
Methylmalonic acid (MMA) informs you about how much vitamin B12 is stored in the body. This option also detects low B12 levels early, so you can make adjustments and seek treatment before any irreversible damage occurs.
Although it is more common, measuring the B12 concentration in the blood serum is not ideal because it only detects a deficiency once it has reached a more severe level.
And by that time, you may have already started to experience some negative consequences of your low levels.
And that is why making sure that holotranscobalamin or methylmalonic acid is measured at your appointment is so important!
Why should you get blood tests even if you supplement regularly?
Probably the most compelling argument is that a vitamin B12 deficiency can have severe consequences.
For that reason, getting regular tests done just to be safe makes a lot of sense.
Another reason is that a good folic acid status can mask deficiency symptoms of vitamin B12. As a vegan, you are most likely well supplied with folic acid.
So it is possible that you have a B12 deficiency but are not experiencing any symptoms because of your good folic acid levels. An undetected deficiency could cause severe damages.
Moreover, often B12 deficiency symptoms only occur once your B12 storage is less than 10%. In some cases, this can take up to 10 years.
But just because you don’t experience any symptoms doesn’t mean that damages aren’t happening inside your body
Common vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms:
If you take a supplement regularly and you take it in sufficient amounts, then you should have not problem meeting your vitamin B12 need as a vegan.
But to be safe, getting regular blood tests is also recommended.
It is also good to be aware of some of the most common deficiency symptoms. So, in case you experience any of them, you can seek medical advice.
Common vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms are:
- – Fatigue
- – Paleness
- -Mood swings
- – Anemia
- – Depression
- – Dizziness
- – Dementia
- – Trouble concentrating
- – Confusion
- – Constipation
- – Numbness
- – Weakness
- – Problems with balance
- – Blurred vision
- – Cognitive dysfunctions
- – Tingling sensations in hands and feet
Can you take in too much Vitamin B12?
The body can regulate how much Vitamin B12 it absorbs. So, even if you take high doses, the body may only absorb a fraction of it.
Moreover, vitamin B12 is water-soluble, so the body can excrete excess amounts.
Thus, it is unlikely that you experience negative consequences even if you consume high doses of the vitamin.
Regardless, with massive doses (like injections), negative side effects can occur. Having too much vitamin B12 in your blood can potentially also be harmful.
For that reason, your goal should always be to take in just the amount you need and not more or less than that.
Is it unnatural to take a B12 supplement?
One of the most commonly used arguments against veganism is that vegans need to supplement vitamin B12.
Supposedly, this is unnatural, so eating vegan is unnatural.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that only microorganisms that live in the ground and soil can produce Vitamin B12. So, animal products are a source of B12
- 1. because they graze (which is very rare for most farmed animals) and come in contact with these microorganisms in that way
- 2. because a supplement is added to their feed or
- 3. Because they receive B12 injections.
Options two and three are how almost all farmed animals get their vitamin B12.
Therefore, whether you as a vegan take a supplement or you give a supplement to an animal and then eat the animal in terms of the naturality of the vitamin B12 source, it’s pretty much the same.
Also, there are plenty of modern comforts that are “unnatural”, such as wifi, cars, sanitation, and clean water —just something to think about 😉
Alright, you just learned everything you need to know about vitamin B12 as a vegan.
I know we covered a lot of information, which is why I created this free guide, with all of the most important nutrients for vegans, including vitamin B12 and how to meet the need reliably.
It has everything you need to know and learned in this article nicely summed up, so you can quickly reference that anytime.
Also, if you have any further questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to get back to you 😃
Thank you so much for spending time with me, and I wish you a wonderful day.