Why vitamin B12 is so important for your health

If you’re eating a plant-based diet, ensuring you absorb enough vitamin B12 is vital, explains nutritionist Egzona Makolli

Plant-based food

Plant-based diets are quickly becoming the norm for many of us. But while removing animal products from our diet is undoubtedly good for the environment, it can be challenging to get enough vitamin B12, as this vitamin isn’t present in plant-based foods.

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Naturally occurring in most animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs and milk, vitamin B12 performs multiple, vital functions in the body. It is responsible for proper red blood cell formation, keeping the nervous system healthy, as well as releasing energy from food and DNA synthesis.

Thankfully, compared to other vitamins, B12 is only required in small amounts – an adult’s recommended intake is between 1.5 and 2.4 micrograms per day, rising for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Plus, we can store substantial amounts of the vitamin in the liver for around two to four years until it is needed. Therefore, if you are flexitarian, a vegetarian who regularly consumes dairy products or have only recently undergone a change in diet, B12 deficiency poses a very low risk.

As vitamin B12 must be broken down by stomach acid before it is absorbed, this risk rises slightly for the over-50s, as conditions that decrease stomach acid secretion become more common. For anyone on a purely plant-based diet, it’s important to ensure that you absorb vitamin B12 by regularly eating fortified products such as breakfast cereals, bread, certain yeast- and soy-based products and some plant milks. Current literature shows that these products are generally reliable sources of vitamin B12 and can be easily incorporated into any diet.

Diagnosing vitamin B12 deficiency is relatively difficult as symptoms are varied and tend to develop very gradually. They include a loss of energy, blurred vision, poor memory, tingling in the hands, legs or feet and, in more advanced cases, personality change. As a result, it can take a long time to be diagnosed, so if you are concerned about your levels of vitamin B12, it is advisable to request a blood test from your doctor.

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4 tips for getting your B12

  1. For vegans, aim to incorporate foods fortified with vitamin B12 into your diet two to three times per day.
  2. Seafood sources high in vitamin B12 include clams and oily fish such as sardines, salmon, trout and tuna.
  3. As we only need to consume relatively small amounts of vitamin B12, a standard multivitamin will often provide our recommended daily intake and boost levels of other useful vitamins too.
  4. Vitamin B12 supplements are recommended for those at risk of B12 deficiency, including older adults, pregnant or breastfeeding women, anyone with intestinal problems and those who have had stomach surgery. However, always consult your doctor before taking any supplements as you need to know the dose suited to your body.

Egzona Makolli

(BSc Hons. MSc ANutr)

As a nutritionist, Egzona knows how what we eat affects our overall health and is passionate about sharing her knowledge. Learn more at kijaniliving.com

Egzoni Makoli