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How to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency as a vegan

by tamarajune
Published: Last Updated on

Vitamin B12 deficiency is probably one of the most talked-about topics when it comes to veganism and that for a good reason. It is an essential vitamin, which means that the body cannot produce it, and it needs to be taken in with food.

Since most plants don’t contain B12 (and the ones that do only have minute amounts), vegans have a high risk of deficiency.

However, they are not the only ones at risk. Many omnivores and vegetarians often don’t get enough of the vitamin, either.

Since vitamin B12 deficiency can have severe and possibly irreversible health consequences, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know about the vitamin in this post.

Plus, we’ll focus on how you can make sure you meet your need.

Why is vitamin B12 important?

Vitamin B12 has many functions. Among others it

  • is involved in the production of DNA and blood cells
  • participates in energy and fat metabolism
  • degrades the amino acid homocysteine
  • protects the brain and central nervous system.

What are vegan sources of vitamin B12?

Most plants do not contain any B12, and the ones that do only have minute amounts. Sauerkraut, beer, root vegetables, and some types of algae may contain the vitamin but not nearly enough to help meet the requirement.

Do animal products contain B12?

Only microorganisms can produce Vitamin B12. Nevertheless, animal products contain B12, among others, because animals receive B12 injections, or a supplement is added to their feed.

How much vitamin B12 should you take?

The daily vitamin B12 requirement is 4 µg per day for adults.

However, absorption is low, so the recommended weekly intake is at least 2500 µg. Thus, if your supplement contains 1000 µg, you need to take it 3x a week. If you have one with 500 µg, then you need to consume it 5x a week.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women have an increased need, while babies and children under the age of 13 have a lower one.

Listed in the table below is the recommended daily intake for all life stages.

Age  Recommended daily intake
0-4 months0,5 µg
4-12 months1,4 µg
1-4 years1,5 µg
4-7 years2,0 µg
7-10 years2,5 µg
10-13 years3,5 µg
Pregnant women4,5 µg
Breastfeeding women5,5 µg

Summary: If you follow a vegan/plant-based diet, you must supplement at least 2500 micrograms vitamin B12 every week.

Which vitamin B12 supplement should you take?

Vegans need to take vitamin B12 regularly and for the long term.

Enriched products (like plant milk and toothpaste) can help meet the need but by themselves are not adequate.

The most reliable supplements are sublingual ones such as drops, lozenges, sprays, and chewable tablets.

Common alternatives are tablets and capsules. While these are generally reliable, some people are not able to absorb the vitamin from these sources. Thus, they may develop a deficiency, even if they supplement regularly. That is one of the reasons why getting regular blood tests is so important.

Another way to supplement is by getting a Vitamin B12 injection. However, this method is only recommended if you have a diagnosed deficiency.

Further, multivitamins can help meet the B12 requirement.

Even so, multivitamins, generally, are a bit problematic because 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.

Summary: It is vital that vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement regularly. The most reliable options are sublingual ones, such as drops and chewable tablets.

Here you can learn what other supplements all vegans should take.

How often should you get your B12 levels tested?

A deficiency can have severe long term adverse health consequences. That’s why you should get your blood checked regularly even if you take a supplement consistently,

The body stores B12 for several years, so it is sufficient if you get a test done every 2-3 years.

The most reliable values to test for are holotranscobalamin and methylmalonate. Holotranscobalamin detects a deficiency the earliest. Thus, it can be treated before serious consequences occur. 

Methylmalonate shows how good your Vitamin B12 supply is over the long term and thus is also a reliable parameter.

More common but less reliable is measuring the B12-concentration in the blood serum. By the time a deficiency is detected via the B12-concentration in the serum, irreversible damage may have already occurred.

Summary: It is recommended to check your vitamin B12 status with a blood test every 2-3 years. The most reliable parameters to test a holotranscobalamin and methylmalonate.

What are the symptoms of a Vitamin B12 deficiency, and how serious is it?

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a very serious matter because it can lead to irreversible neurological damage and problems with blood production. Moreover, B12 degrades the amino acid homocysteine. Failure to degrade homocysteine promotes atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Early symptoms of a deficiency can be fatigue, paleness, and anemia.

A severe deficiency shows hematological symptoms as well as neurological ones. (Depression, dizziness, dementia, trouble concentrating, and confusion.) In children, it can cause brain development complications.

Summary: A B12 deficiency is serious. Early symptoms can be fatigue, paleness, and anemia. If you have a severe deficiency, you may experience neurological and hematological symptoms.

Can you overdose on Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B 12 is water-soluble, so the body excretes excess amounts. Therefore, in most cases, no negative consequences occur even if you consume high amounts of the vitamin. However, with massive doses (f.e. injections), adverse side effects may occur.

Summary: Vitamin B12 is water-soluble, and the body excretes excess amounts. Thus, in most cases, even high doses don’t have harmful side effects.

Summary: Everything vegans need to know about vitamin B12

Infographic summarizing how vegan can prevent vitamin b12 deficiency

Do you take Vitamin B12 regularly?

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