Is vitamin B12 supplementation important for vegans? In short, the best available evidence that we have to date points to… YES! A million times yes!!! Vitamin B12 is essential for many reasons in the human body, including making new red blood cells, cell division, DNA synthesis, and protecting nerves. These are not aspects of your health that you want to mess around with. Deficiency of B12 can lead to a certain type of anemia and even nerve damage, if left untreated.
Vitamin B12 originates from bacteria. Plants don’t make it, neither do animals. Non-vegans will get it from meat, eggs and milk, as animals either get it in their diet or are able to absorb the vitamin B12 produced by bacteria in their intestines. While humans also have vitamin B12 producing bacteria in the gut, it is produced in the large intestine, where we cannot absorb it.
We can keep a certain amount of vitamin in our bodies B12 for some time, as the human body has a really neat way of storing it and recycling it. However, how much time we have until we run out really depends on the vitamin B12 reserves we are starting with. Some people might have several years, while others have a much shorter time. There are blood tests that can be done to tell whether you are getting enough, and to ensure it is doing its job in your body. But really, why wait until deficiency to start supplementing?
As for plant based foods, since plants generally don’t make it, they are not a good source of vitamin B12. It has been suggested that certain sea vegetables contain vitamin B12, such as spirulina, chlorella, and purple laver, as wells as other things like mushrooms and fermented foods. However these sources often have either vitamin B12 “analogues” (meaning they don’t function like B12 in our bodies), or there is not enough evidence to prove that they are a good source. Until we have more research to prove that these foods definitely provide sufficient, usable vitamin B12, it is strongly recommended not to rely on them.
Getting B12 from a supplement or from fortified foods, such as plant-based milk, veggie meats and nutritional yeast with vitamin B12 added, is essential to stay healthy as a vegan. There is no denying that.
In order to get enough, it is recommended to take a supplement providing 25 mcg every day, or 1000 to 2500mcg twice a week.
At some point, you might ask yourself a question like: is it natural to take vitamin B12 supplements and consume fortified foods? Shouldn’t I be able to stay healthy by only eating plant based foods, with no supplements?
While for some people it might not seem “natural” to take a supplement, or seem more “natural” to eat what our paleo-ancestors ate, the fact is that our paleo-ancestors ate what they had to eat for survival. They didn’t have time to think about balancing their plates and getting all the right macronutrient distributions. They had to eat what was available to them, and sometimes that was meat (of any available animal)… or bugs…or whatever else they could get their hands on. Today, we live in a very different world. Can we still say in today’s society that meat, eggs and dairy are always eaten out of necessity? Or is it more so is eaten for convenience, taste, habit and tradition?
When animals are being treated unfairly, raising animals for food is harmful to the environment, and transitioning toward a plant based diet can prevent or treat common chronic medical conditions, how long can we continue to justify the status quo?
Vitamin B12 is an easy, inexpensive, uncomplicated supplement to take.
It is worthwhile to ask, keeping in mind the big picture, if we can get vitamin B12 and other nutrients without causing harm to non-human animals as well as the environment, why wouldn’t we?