How Do Vegans Get Vitamin B12?

a generic picture of a few jars of vitamin pills

There is a very common myth concerning vegans and it’s that they’re all deficient in vitamin B12. People think this because B12 is generally not found in any plant foods, they only exist naturally in animal foods such as meat, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese. While it’s true that natural plant foods like fruits and vegetables have no B12, it’s very easy for vegans to get enough B12. So how do vegans get vitamin B12 from their diets? There are two ways and that is either through B12 fortified foods or with supplements.

What Is Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 (aka Cobalamin) is a water soluble vitamin that is responsible for healthy normal functioning of the brain, nervous system, and the formation of red blood cells. It is one of eight of the B vitamins and structurally speaking it is the largest and most complicated vitamin.

Sources for vitamin B12 include animal foods (meat, fish and dairy products,) B12 fortified foods, and vitamin B12 supplements. Although it is found in animal foods, the animals do not produce it themselves. No animals, humans, plants or fungi can produce vitamin B12. It is produced by microorganisms like bacteria and archaea, only they have the enzymes needed to synthesize B12.

It is also found in the soil to some extent, but is not a reliable source for B12.

The most reliable way to ensure you get enough of it as a vegan is through fortified foods or supplements.

Supplements

When you are taking oral supplements (vitamin pill) it is best to chew it well and let it dissolve first before you swallow it to allow maximum absorption. If you don’t like taking vitamin pills everyday, you may want to go with a B12 injection shot every month instead.

I know many vegans on YouTube who take B12 injection shots once a month. Another reason for doing shots is that it doesn’t rely on the intrinsic factor, a glycoprotein produced in the stomach that is necessary for the absorption of B12. Most healthy people would have no problems absorbing B12 through oral supplements, but the issue comes for people with some intestinal diseases that makes absorption of B12 difficult. 

Fortified Foods

Many vegan foods are fortified with vitamin B12 and they are pretty easy to find. These foods include things like plant-based milks, energy bars, breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and others. Eating fortified foods frequently consistently throughout the day will ensure you get the adequate amounts. 

If you’re using fortified foods, make sure you check the labels to see how much B12 you’re getting, the amounts vary from brand to brand. It may be wise to use both daily supplements and fortified foods to make sure you’re getting 100% of the RDA.

Doing veganism properly with B12 supplements or B12 fortified vegan food products is an easy and effective way to ensure you not run into any deficiency problems.

What Happens If You’re B12 Deficient?

Deficiency happens when the body does not get or cannot absorb enough B12. The liver can actually store vitamin B12 for up to about 5 years, so it can take a long time for any deficiency and problems to start surfacing. But when deficiency does occur, that is a big problem. It can cause irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system, it can also cause anemia.

Some of the symptoms you might notice when deficiency begins to occur include:

  • Tiredness
  • Depression
  • Confusion and memory problems
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands, arms, legs and/or feet
  • Difficulty maintaining balance
  • Headaches
  • Mania
  • Psychosis

A lot of these symptoms like depression and tiredness for example, is not specific enough to point to a B12 deficiency problem. So if you believe you may have B12 deficiency, then you should go to a doctor and have them check you out, because a lot of these symptoms can also be caused by problems that are not related to B12 deficiency at all. 

Who is At Risk of B12 Deficiency?

People who have certain intestinal diseases like celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, or people who have gone through weight loss surgery often have trouble absorbing enough B12, even after oral supplementation. These people should have the B12 injected into them, since they cannot efficiently get it into their body orally.

People who are age 50+, whether they’re vegan or not, should take B12 supplements due to their decreased absorption rates that comes with aging.

Also some raw vegans who don’t take any supplements, or babies with mothers who are B12 deficient are also at risk of deficiency. Babies are more vulnerable than adults and this makes permanent damage more likely. If not correctly right away it can quickly lead to coma and even death.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious issue, but it is important to note that it is not a vegan-only deficiency, it can happen to anyone.

Getting Enough B12 – How Much Do You Need?

You only need very little amounts of it at a time, the body cannot use much more than about 10 micro grams (mcg) of it per day. How much B12 you need depends on several factors such as age and gender. Other factors are also important, pregnant and breast feeding women need more. The current recommended dietary allowances (RDA) are as follows:

  • 2.4 mcg for men and women ages 14+
  • 2.6 mcg for pregnant women
  • 2.8 mcg for nursing mothers
  • 0.4 mcg for babies 0-6 months
  • 0.5 mcg for babies 7-12 months
  • 0.9 mcg for children 1-3 years old
  • 1.2 mcg for children 4-8 years old
  • 1.8 mcg for children 9-13 years old

These amounts are based on a 50% absorption rate. The less B12 you consume at one time, the higher the absorption rate. For 1 mcg or less the absorption rate is 50%, for 1000 mcg or more the absorption rate is only 0.5%. So if you’re only consuming B12 every couple of days, then you should consume a really large amount to ensure that you absorb enough of it.

For healthy people there is generally no problem with taking in excess amounts of B12 that’s well above the RDA. This is because when B12 goes into your bloodstream, the excess amounts that cannot bind to the blood is release from the body through the urine.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this post have helped you see that vitamin B12 is pretty easy to procure on a 100% vegan plant-based diet. Nobody should keep themselves from going vegan due to fears or some myths and misconceptions out there, there are plenty of people who have been healthy and thriving vegans for decades without any issue.

With all the B12 fortified foods and supplements out there, going vegan and doing it in a healthy way is easier than ever. Let me know in the comments down below if you have any questions.

2 thoughts on “How Do Vegans Get Vitamin B12?

  1. Barbara Zimmerman says:

    Why should large amounts of B12 be consumed if only eaten every few days when it is absorbed easier in small portions? What is stored and what passes in urine?

    • Kent says:

      It is because some people do not want to intake B12 frequently and so the only way to ensure the RDA is met is through a large dose once every few days. If someone intake a small portion every few days, that will not be enough. The excess B12 that cannot be stored gets released through the urine.

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