Today I am going to end one of the most burning controversies among the vegan community: do vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12?
If you’re reading this post, it’s probably because you’ve heard conflicting information on the issue. Some say you can get all the B12 you need from your diet, others that your body makes its own B12, and still others say that not only vegans, but many meat-eaters as well, will become deficient in this vital nutrient if they don’t supplement.
Why you need vitamin B12
Well, first of all, let’s establish the fact that if you get deficient in vitamin B12, you’re in deep dog doo. In fact, nutrition experts say that by the time you develop some symptoms, you may not be able to recover some of the damage the deficiency caused. Why?
For one thing, vitamin B12 is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. When a body is deficient in this nutrient, the coating around the nerves known as the myelin sheath does not form properly.
For another, the vitamin is needed for red blood cell development. Without it, and I quote from the book “The World’s Healthiest Foods,” “synthesis of DNA becomes defective, and so does the information needed for red blood cell formation. The cells become oversized and poorly shaped, and begin to function ineffectively, a condition called pernicious anemia.”
Bad red blood cell formation leads to problems in getting oxygen delivered around the body.
So it is critical that you get on the right side of the B12 supplement controversy. No sitting on the fence allowed. In order to correctly answer the question, “Do vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12?”, you need a little more information.
“Guru” does not equal “educated”
The first thing you should know is that none of the so-called gurus who are claiming that you can get all the B12 you need from either your diet or your body have any serious education in nutrition or physiology.
That said, let’s examine some of the claims these gurus make. First claim: Many vegetables contain B12. False. Certain vegetables – and that includes sea vegetables such as spirulina – contain a substance that is related to B12, but in actual fact is inactive. In other words, it doesn’t do squat for your health. And even if this b12 analog was active, vegetables do not contain nearly enough of it to meet the human body’s requirements for the vitamin.
Second claim: as long as you eat unwashed vegetables, you will get enough B12 by accidentally eating small amounts of insects and dirt. Again, false. Yes, unwashed vegetables often contain tiny insects, as well as their feces, and dirt. And yes, these things contain B12.
But again, the amount is negligible and won’t meet your needs. And that’s saying something, because the actual amount of B12 you need on a daily basis is small. (Are you starting to realize the answer about whether vegans need to take a B12 supplement?)
Third claim: your body produces its own B12, so you don’t even have to worry about it. If you have ever taken nutritional advice from anyone who has ever said this, do not listen to them anymore. About anything.
Yes, your body produces its own B12 – in your colon. However, your body absorbs B12 through the small intestine. And there is no magical travel of the vitamin back up into the small intestine. Once the bacteria in your colon produce the vitamin, you poop it out. So unless you are willing to eat our own feces (as some species of the rodent family do), you cannot get B12 from your own body.
If you are on a vegan diet, you need to supplement with B12. And not in three years. Many people do not have this mythical three-year supply of B12, including many meat-eaters. You need to start supplementing YESTERDAY. What can happen if you don’t?
My shocking experience
For an entire year, I consumed nothing but raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Believing the raw vegan gurus that I could all the nutrients I needed from my diet, I didn’t take any supplements.
Six months into the gig, I started developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Which symptoms? Mainly, I began to lose everyday vocabulary. For example, I would want to say the word “chair”, but the word that would pop into my head for the thing that you sit on would be “apple.” I wasn’t so far gone that I actually said “apple.” I knew it was the wrong word. But it took me ten to twenty seconds to think of the right word.
It. Was. Scary.
Really scary, because my dad had had Alzheimer’s.
I should have stopped right there and started doing some research, getting online and typing in search terms like “nutrient deficiencies that affect memory”.
But, I didn’t. The gurus were gurus for a reason, right? They knew what they were talking about! So I trudged on with the diet for another six months, and when the struggle to think of basic, everyday words only got worse, I added meat back into my diet and my mind started working again.
I didn’t need to eat meat. I needed vitamin B12 in my body.
More vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms
Struggling with memory is only one possible symptom of a vitamin B12 deficiency. Other symptoms include depression, nervousness, red or sore tongue, tingling or numbness in feet, heart palpitations, dandruff, decreased blood clotting, pale skin, fatigue, weak pulse, and, for women, menstrual irregularities.
Ignorance is not always bliss
A big concern for people considering the question, “Do vegans need to take a B12 supplement?” ask this additional question: “But don’t B12 supplements come from animals?”
No. Microorganisms produce the vitamin. Supplements are created in test tubes or petri dishes. They are vegan, and very low-cost. Every single vegan medical doctor and any vegan researcher worth his or her salt tells vegans to supplement with B12, so stop making excuses. This is your health we’re talking about. If you’re not already taking a B12 supplement, go buy one and start taking it today.
Because now, if anyone asks you, “Do vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12?”, you now know the answer.