Vegetarian diet and all its variations (f.e. vegan) provides you with plenty of health benefits, if done correctly. When on this diet, you need to pay extra attention to the following vitamins, minerals and microelements to avoid their deficiency: calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient amount of protein.
This post is about vitamin B12.
The role of B12 in the body
Vitamin B12 is needed for red blood cells formation, DNA synthesis, and homocysteine metabolism. It appears to be a cofactor involved in the production of nitric oxide, which has a direct relation to vascular and immune health. But even more important, vitamin B12 plays a key role in the development and function of brain and nerve cells.
Vitamin B12 deficiency may take years to develop in adults. This is because most of the B12 gets reabsorbed, thus conserving the body stores. Therefore, a regular consumption of adequate B12 is important to avoid deficiency that can go undetected for years. However, B12 deficiency in a long term is dangerous because it can cause IRREVERSIBLE damage of nervous system. You will notice that by mental issues (such as memory loss, changes in personality and mood), coordination problems (such as loss of control over your movements and muscles, incorrect sense of position), some visual disturbances and dizziness from sudden changes in blood pressure. And these are only a few examples of the consequences of B12 deficiency for your body.
Who is at greater risk of vitamin B12 deficiency?
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians may just fullfill the daily recommended intake (DRI), depending on their use of dairy products. As for vegans, they are at greater risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Typically, the average dietary intake of vitamin B12 of vegans is far below the DRI.
In one way or the other, if you are on a plant-based diet, it would be wise to check your B12 status annually.
How to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency on a plant-based diet?
Avoiding B12 deficiency means taking care of your digestive system and eating/supplementing right.
Taking care of your digestive system
Digestive disorders (f.e. stomach flu, gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation) can hurt the absorption of B12. Actually B12 deficiency is most probably caused by poor absorption rather than by poor intake. With that said, foods are still very important.
It’s not a secret that the main sources of vitamin B12 are animal products. There are the exceptions, which are specific types of mushrooms (black trumpet, chanterelle, and shiitake) and algae (green or purple laver).
Vegans but also vegetarians can prevent vitamin B12 deficiency in 2 ways:
1. by using vitamin B12-fortified foods (such as fortified plant-based beverages, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified vegetarian meat analogs).
Unfortified plant foods such as fermented soy foods, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, and seaweeds don’t contain enough of active vitamin B12 to meet daily needs.
2. by supplementing with vitamin B12.
Daily needs can be adequately met in men and non-pregnant, non-lactating women by consuming a 500 µg B12 supplement at least 3 times a week. Vitamin B12 is well absorbed from either sub-lingual or chewable tablets. While the methylcobalamin is considered as more effective form of B12, its bioavailability is not superior to that of cyanocobalamin, which is the more stable and most commonly used form of B12 in fortified foods and many supplements.
Point of attention
Last, but not least, if you take medications, please consult your doctor as a number of medications can impair the absorption or utilization of B12.
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