It is a widely accepted belief that if you are healthy and eat, drink, rest well and get some sunshine, then you should never really need to take a vitamin supplement. In a way, it sounds perfectly reasonable. So imagine every vegan’s surprise (or horror) when they realize they should take vitamin B12 supplements for the rest of their vegan days. Does that mean a plant-based diet is not the best one, after all? How could something be wrong when it feels so right? What will their retort be to all the fanatical meat eaters out there waiting to say ‘I told you so’?
Well, vegan friends, fear not! Your diet is still fine and having to take a supplement is fine also. Here is why, in a little bit of detail.
Vitamin B12 - What Is It And Why Do We Need It?
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is needed for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, as well as for the formation of red blood cells. It is excreted from the bile and into the intestines, where it gets absorbed; so any malabsorption issues that can be present due to digestive disorders or conditions like Crohn’s or celiac disease can cause vitamin B12 deficiency in vegans and meat eaters alike. Therefore it is very important we all get enough of it and look after our gut health to avoid developing any kind of irreversible neurological conditions associated with vitamin B12 deficiency.
What Food Sources Can We Get It From?
The only natural food sources of vitamin B12 are animal products (meat, fish, poultry) and dairy. It can also be found in some fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, cereal and non-dairy milks. Although some algae and seaweeds are sometimes mentioned as sufficient B12 sources, there is currently insufficient evidence to support such claims. Therefore, a supplement is advised for vegans to ensure they meet the recommended weekly amount of 2,000 micrograms (this amount is higher by 25-50% for pregnant and lactating women).
Cows Are Vegan, Where Do They Get Their Vitamin B12 From?
Now this is a good question, because vitamin B12 cannot actually be synthesised by any animal or plant but only by microorganisms and bacteria. Going back a few decades, humans used to eat much dirtier food, they drank water from streams, didn't sanitize everything, etc. They ate enough bacteria and microorganisms for their gut to produce vitamin B12. Nowadays, this is how animals still eat and drink, hence their vitamin B12 efficiency, but not humans; and this is why we either need to ingest other animals or animal products (not ideal for vegans), or take vitamin B12 supplements (perfect!). Rumour has it that some raw vegans who grow their own organic produce and eat it unwashed do not have B12 deficiency. However, since following anecdotal evidence is not always the best way to live life, the supplement route is recommended.
Are All Supplements Made Equal?
The two most common forms of vitamin B12 supplements you are likely to come across are methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin. Both are safe to use. With regard to whether one is better than the other, I will quote Dr. Michael Greger, MD “B12 is so cheap to produce that supplement manufacturers try to come up with all sorts of fancy ways to “add value” to products so they can charge $30 a bottle. Unless you’re a smoker, have kidney failure, or base your diet around cassava root, cyanocobalamin should be fine. That’s what I take!” Finally, because vitamin B12 is water soluble, overdosing on it is practically impossible, as any excess will be excreted in the urine.
I hope this has given all plant-eating lovers out there some relief and science-based moral support.