Health-e-Tip: How Vegetarians Get B12 from Foods

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HeConnection-Health-e-Tips-Vegetarians Get B12Here we discuss how vegetarians get B12 from food. For most Americans, the risk of dietary deficiency of vitamin B12 is quite low. The median intake of vitamin B12 in the United States and Canada has been variously estimated between 3 and 7 mcg per day. As such, most people are getting plenty of this vitamin to prevent deficiency and even store more than they utilize.

The only group where we see any substantial risk of dietary vitamin B12 deficiency is in strict vegans. In a group of 232 British vegans, most of whom were younger than age 50, a little more than half had biochemical evidence of dietary B12 deficiency. The deficiency risk was nearly ten times as high in vegans as vegetarians, and more than 50 times higher compared to those who regularly ate animal foods.

Ovo-lacto vegetarians (or people who don’t eat animal meat, but do include dairy and eggs in their diet) are at a slightly increased risk of dietary vitamin B12 deficiency, but we rarely see clinical problems in this group. When we do, it is most commonly in people who had eaten a vegetarian diet throughout their entire life, rather than adopting it later.

This distinction is critical to understanding why we see people with negative balance of this vitamin often fail to develop symptoms. Because many people store thousands of times the daily requirement for vitamin B12, it can take a really long time for a dietary deficit to show up. The larger the store that you have – meaning the more animal foods you ate prior to adopting a fully plant-based diet – the longer it will take to deplete it.

Nutritionists currently recommend strict vegetarians or vegans use fortified foods or supplements to ensure proper vitamin B12 intake. We agree with this public health recommendation.

Nutritional yeast grown on a molasses medium is an example of a food-based quasi-supplement approach that would provide a vegan source of vitamin B12. One widely available brand has more than twice the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for B12 in one and one-half tablespoons of yeast. Note that not all nutritional yeasts are rich in vitamin B12, and that you’ll need to check labels for details.

The National Academy of Sciences currently recommends that people over the age of 50 receive much of their vitamin B12 from supplements or fortified foods. Currently, about 40% of the vitamin B12 that Americans eat comes from these non-food sources.

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