Have you ever heard the horror story that if you go vegan you will get a vitamin B12 deficiency? Although it isn't one of the major things people bring up to me when they're concerned about going vegan, I hear it once in awhile.
There is a lot of confusion about the deficiency; some people say you don't need to take a supplement at all and others say that to be diligent you should take a small amount every day.
The people who have the most problems with the deficiency are those who live in undeveloped countries who don't have reliable access to food and water sources. Babies, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are also more vulnerable to developing a deficiency.
When breastfeeding, it's really important to make sure you're getting an adequate amount of B12 (along with other vitamins and minerals, of course) so you can pass it on to your baby. Our stomachs create a stockpile of vitamin B12 that is used slowly over time, but babies need your assistance to create that stockpile.
Vitamin B12 helps to regulate red blood cells and nerve cells, and to help produce DNA. Without a sufficient supply of B12, your bodily systems can start to shut down.
This vitamin isn't made by plants or animals, but by bacteria that grows in the soil. When an animal eats something directly out of the soil that has B12 bacteria on it, the vitamin pulses through its veins and becomes part of its cells. That turns the animal into a source of vitamin B12.
Because many animals eat straight from the ground, they are great sources of vitamin B12. As a side note, if humans ate vegetables right out of the ground, we could also be sources of B12 and other animals could eat us and be infused with the vitamin.
Of course, if you wanted to grow your own vegetables and eat them with just a bit of dirt on them, you could probably avoid having to worry about supplementing your diet with vitamins. Most people prefer to clean their food to wash away the potentially harmful bacteria, so luckily many foods are now fortified with B12.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is very rare, probably partially because our recommended daily needs for the vitamin are very low and because the body stores vitamin B12 for long periods of time. Some people even have several years' supply of B12, and the body just releases it when you need it.
Typically, older adults have more risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency than younger adults. And, it makes sense that a newly converted vegan would have quite a stockpile from when they ate meat, whereas a long-time vegan would be dipping into the bottom of the natural stockpile.
You don't want to become deficient though, because vitamin B12 is a nasty illness that can lead to depression, loss of memory, confusion, and anemia. In serious cases of B12 deficiency, your nervous system can be severely damaged.
It's hard to diagnose deficiency in vitamin B12 because it often doesn't have unique symptoms and you might start to become deficient without even realizing it. It's commonly diagnosed when someone develops anemia, a side effect of vitamin B12 deficiency. Anemia makes you weak, fatigued, pale, lightheaded, and gives an overall feeling of sickness.
Many foods are fortified with vegan vitamin B12, and if you're adding these into your daily diet, you are much less in need of a physical vitamin pill to ensure you have enough in your system.
Vegan Vitamin B12 sources:
Nutritional yeast is one of the most popular ways to supplement a vegan diet with vitamin B12. Just be sure to read the nutritional information because some brands do not have B12. I like Red Star and Bob's Red Mill the best, and Amazon tends to have really good deals on large packs, especially if you opt for the subscribe and save option.
Amazon sets up a schedule to send your nutritional yeast every few months for a discounted price over ordering it just once. You can cancel at any time, even right after placing your order, and you can also postpone delivery if you don't need more nutritional yeast at the time.
Getting a vitamin B12 deficiency is nothing you need to lay awake at night worrying about, and it's certainly not enough of a concern not to go vegan, but you should be responsible and supplement your diet.
Now, that's not to say that you shouldn't be aware of your B12 intake. You should. In fact, you should be taking supplements, but you don't need a huge amount. You don't even need to take the pill every day. Every few days is fine.
If you are pregnant or lactating, make sure to consult your doctor about the appropriate consumption levels of all vitamins, including vitamin B12. Infants can develop a deficiency very quickly, and it's important to be vigilant in those cases.
It would be very hard to take too much vitamin B12, so if you are really concerned about it, feel free to take it every day. Just remember that the extra is just being stored in your day.
The upside is that if you should ever become stranded on a desert island, you wouldn't need to worry about becoming deficient!