Vitamin B-12 plays an essential role in a person's health. A lack of vitamin B-12 in a person's diet can adversely affect their physical and mental health.
Vegetarians and vegans must take particular care to consume enough vitamin B-12, as it is mainly found in meat, eggs, and dairy products. Therefore, it is more likely a vegan or vegetarian will develop a vitamin B-12 deficiency.
In this article, we look at how much vitamin B-12 is required and list good vegetarian and vegan sources.
Ensuring a person includes enough vitamin B-12 in their diet is essential for optimum health. The health benefits of the vitamin include:
- the formation and division of red blood cells
- protecting the nervous system
- synthesizing a person's DNA
- providing the body with energy
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of B-12 depends on a person's age:
- Adults and teenagers: 2.4 micrograms (mcg) per day
- Children between 9 and 13 years old: 1.8 mcg per day
- Children between 4 and 8 years old: 1.2 mcg per day
- Toddlers between 1 and 3 years old: 0.9 mcg per day
Infants between 7 and 12 months old require 0.5 mcg of B-12 per day, and babies less than 6 months old only need 0.4 mcg per day.
Pregnant women require 2.6 mcg, while breast-feeding women need 2.8 mcg per day.
For vegetarians looking to increase their vitamin B12 intake, there are a variety of options. Some good choices for B-12 include:
- low-fat milk
- fortified plant-based milk
- fortified cereals
- nutritional yeast
While seaweed, algae, and certain mushrooms all contain vitamin B-12, they are not reliable sources because they do not act the same way in the human body. Studies have found that consuming these foods does not significantly increase a person's vitamin B-12 levels and can still lead to a deficiency.
A vegetarian should be sure to consume enough of the following foods on a regular basis. It is vital to understand how much vitamin B-12 these foods contain:
- 8 ounces (oz) of yogurt contains about 1.1 mcg of vitamin B-12
- 1 cup of low-fat milk can provide 1.2 mcg of vitamin B-12
- 1 oz of Swiss cheese can contain 0.95 mcg of vitamin B-12
- 1 large egg contains 0.6 mcg of vitamin B-12
Fortified cereals are a good choice as they have high bioavailability. This means that the vitamin B-12 does not have to break down before the body absorbs it.
Nutritional yeast is popular with both vegetarians and vegans because it is easy to add to dishes while cooking and has a rich, cheesy, nutty flavor. Nutritional yeast can be added to cooked meals or sprinkled on food and snacks. It is available to buy online.
To use nutritional yeast, a person can:
- sprinkle it on popcorn
- mix it into cheese sauces
- mix it into mashed potatoes
- sprinkle over scrambled eggs or tofu
- stir into a creamy soup
- add to pasta dishes
- put it on salads
Because vegans avoid all animal-derived products, they may rely on vitamin B-12 fortified foods, such as certain breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. Plant foods do not produce vitamin B-12, so it is vital that vegans find alternative sources of vitamin B12 to remain in the best health.
Some foods that can be fortified with vitamin B-12 include:
- fortified non-dairy milk
- meat substitutes
- breakfast cereals
- nutritional yeast
- vegan spreads
It is essential to read the labels on all of these foods, as some may not be fortified with vitamin B-12. For those who are already B-12 deficient, supplemental B-12 in the form of capsules or injections may be required. B-12 supplements are available to buy online.
A vitamin B-12 deficiency can have severe consequences for a person's health. Common problems associated with vitamin B-12 deficiency include anemia, certain neurological disorders, and reduced growth and healing.
Common symptoms of a vitamin B-12 deficiency include:
- nerve damage
- weakness and fatigue
- tingling in the hands and feet
- blurred vision
- difficulty walking
- problems with the digestive system
- a sore tongue or mouth ulcers
- feeling faint or dizzy
- mood swings
- a decline in memory, judgment, and understanding
- pale skin
- loss of appetite
- tinnitus (ringing, buzzing, or hissing sounds in the ears)
A person who experiences these symptoms should make an appointment with their doctor. The doctor will ask about their symptoms and perform tests to determine whether a lack of vitamin B-12 is the cause.
Vegetarians and vegans should take steps to ensure they include an adequate amount of vitamin B-12 in their diet. Health professionals can provide advice on where to find sources of vitamin B-12 and how much they need to take.
Without maintaining proper levels of vitamin B-12, a person can suffer serious side effects, including nerve damage and depression.
Since no plant-derived foods contain vitamin B-12, vegans and vegetarians should be aware of alternative sources, such as fortified products.