Once you’ve worked out that healthy, unsaturated fats can be obtained through seeds, nuts, vegetables and cooking oils and that vegetarian iron and protein sources are common in Chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, you may think you’ve got the meat-free life sorted. However regardless of the reason you have decided to pack in meat there is one thing that isn’t as easy to get. Vitamin B12! Of all the vitamins essential for the body, Vitamin B12 is the only one not reliably supplied from a varied wholefood, plant-based diet meaning to hit your recommended daily allowance (RDA) as a non-meat eater it can be essential to actively seek out B12.
What is it and why is it important?
Vitamin B12 is one of eight of the water-soluble B vitamins essential for DNA synthesis, fatty acid and amino acid metabolism. Importantly it cannot be synthesised in the body, as only bacteria and archaea have the enzymes required. This makes B12 an essential vitamin required from the diet. The problem with this is vitamin B12 is mainly found in meat or meat based products making it difficult to acquire for non-meat eaters, especially vegans. This is because animals eat other animal food and produce B12 internally due to their intestinal bacteria and farm animals are also supplemented with Vitamin B12. Vegetarians can achieve the RDA of 2.4 mcg (micrograms) through consumption of animal based products such as eggs, cheese and milk however, for vegans, the problem is slightly more difficult. Vitamin B12 is added to some breakfast cereals, milk alternatives and vegan spreads however, from these sources it can be difficult to reach the RDA. Deficiency can especially be a problem for the elderly, who can suffer impaired absorption of B12 due to gastric atrophy. For vegetarians and vegans, it can be difficult to get enough B12 even from an otherwise healthy varied wholefood, plant-based diet. Vegetarians were shown to be far more at risk to elevated homocysteine levels (53.3%) compared to an omnivorous control (10.3%), shown in a 2002 paper. But why is this a problem?
B(12)-ware of deficiency
Stupid pun aside B12 deficiency can be a major issue for non-meat eaters. Very low B12 intakes can cause anaemia and nervous system damage whilst giving symptoms of extreme tiredness, a lack of energy, muscle weakness and even depression. Complaints of tiredness and lack of energy in non-meat eaters are often assumed to be due to lack of calories or proteins within the diet. Although these can be the case, and if you are experiencing these symptoms you should seek advice from a trained professional, it could be due to Vitamin B12 deficiency making it an important condition to be aware of when cutting meat from your diet. Inadequate levels of B12 have also been shown to give rise to homocysteine, an amino acid that has been linked in some papers to a rise in cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This is because B12 helps the enzyme Methionine synthetase convert homocysteine to the less dangerous methionine by a process known as remethylation, in which methyl (CH3) groups are added to homocysteine with the help of folate and Vitamin B12.
But I don’t want to take too much!
Although toxicity (taking too much) B12 is a possibility, it is extremely rare! Being a water-soluble vitamin, is far B12 is easier to extract (usually through urine) than fat soluble vitamins (such as A, D and E) leading to a reduced chance of build up within the body. So don’t be shy in getting enough B12!
How to stop or treat it?
The good news is its easily avoidable and treatable! Phew! For vegetarians, it is important to make sure you get enough eggs, cheese and milk and take supplements if you are still not getting enough. For vegans, the important sources are B12 fortified foods and B12 supplements in which the B12 is in a form that is more easily absorbed. Supplements can be bought from most vitamin stores or online. The vegan society recommends to take either at least 10mcg daily or at least 2000mcg weekly of B12 through supplementation and to aim for a daily intake of at least 3mcg of B12 from fortified foods. However, if you are unsure on supplementation dosage seek advice from a health professional. Don’t let vitamin B12 deficiency be the downfall on following your meat free dream!