Vitamin B12 can be one of the most difficult nutrients to obtain when following a vegan or vegetarian diet. Not to fear! While vitamin B12 typically hangs out in off-limit animal products, specifically milk, eggs, poultry, meat, and fish, there are some plant foods that can offer up some B12, as well as B12 from food products specifically fortified with the vitamin. Read on to find out what B12 does that’s so important in your body, and for sources of vitamin B12 in vegetarian and vegan foods.
Scientifically Proven B12 Benefits
Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient, meaning your body needs to get it from the food you eat as it cannot produce B12 independently. Naturally found in many animal and dairy products, vitamin B12 can also be added to foods (like fortified cereals) or taken as a dietary supplement. Vitamin B12 is needed for nerve cell functioning, DNA synthesis, and red blood cell formation, and while the recommended daily intake for adults is about 2 micrograms, that number is slightly higher for breastfeeding or pregnant women.
Vitamin B12 can also bring even more benefits, like improving memory, boosting energy, and helping to prevent heart disease. Read on to find out the studies being done to explore the full health benefits of vitamin B12.
Supports Skin, Hair, and Nail Health
B12’s role in cell production makes it vital to the health of skin, hair, and nails due to the rapid growth and replacement rate of all three. Low vitamin B12 levels can manifest as dermatological issues like nail discoloration, changes in your hair, hyperpigmentation, vitiligo (patchy losses of skin color), and angular stomatitis (inflammation and skin cracking on the corners of the mouth). B12 supplements have been shown to improve the dermatologic condition of those with a vitamin B12 deficiency.
May Improve Heart Health
High levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and those who are significantly B12 deficient have higher levels of homocysteine. Studies have shown that B12 can help decrease your levels of homocysteine, and researchers believe B12 has the potential to help reduce your risk of heart disease. More studies need to be conducted to find out if vitamin B12 supplements are indeed an effective treatment, but the current research revelations are promising.
May Boost Energy
B12 supplements are often promoted as natural energy boosters, but scientists are more guarded in their assessment. While all of the B vitamins play a role in the body’s energy production, those who already have sufficient B12 supplies will most likely not experience an energy boost. However, those who are B12 deficient are more likely to feel an energy boost from a B12 supplement.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, so your body does not store excess amounts of B12 for later use. Instead, any extra B12 is eliminated in your urine (and will turn it a bright, neon yellow in the process). That being said, it is still true that an early sign of B12 deficiency is fatigue, so while B12 may not boost energy in all circumstances, a lack of it will lead to decreased energy levels.
May Benefit Brain Function
In older adults especially, a vitamin B12 deficiency is associated with memory loss and brain atrophy (a loss of neurons that is often linked to dementia). A study with subjects experiencing early-stage dementia showed that a combination of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 supplements slowed their mental decline.
It’s also been shown that low B12 levels can contribute to poor memory performance and that supplementing with B12 may improve memory. While more research is needed on the subject of B12 supplements and cognitive function, there is evidence that B12 helps protect against brain atrophy and memory loss.
May Improve Mood and Relieve Depression
It is believed that vitamin B12 helps regulate your mood by metabolizing and synthesizing serotonin. A vitamin B12 deficiency leading to an interruption to or decrease in serotonin production could cause severe depression, and studies support the idea of using vitamin B12 supplements for improving mood symptoms in those with a B12 deficiency. One study with participants who were both low in vitamin B12 levels and experiencing depression showed that those who received B12 along with antidepressants were more likely to exhibit improved depressive symptoms than those treated with antidepressants alone.
It’s also been discovered that B12 deficiency is associated with more than double the risk of severe depression, and B12 levels are linked to improved treatment outcomes for those suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD). Again, however, these results are based on those with B12 deficiency, and so far B12 supplementation does not have the same effect on those with adequate B12 levels in their system.
May Reduce the Risk of Macular Degeneration
Adequate B12 intake may help guard against macular degeneration that affects your central vision. Higher homocysteine levels are associated with a risk increase of age-related macular degeneration, and vitamin B12 may help lower levels of homocysteine.
Research suggests that vitamin B12 supplementation may help older adults or those at an increased risk of macular degeneration. One large study of 5,000 women over the age of 40 showed that supplementing with B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6 could reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration. While further research is still needed to understand B12’s relationship to vision health, the early research shows promising results.
Helps Prevent Anemia
Vitamin B12 plays a major role in red blood cell formation, and low B12 levels cause a reduction in fully functioning red blood cells. Healthy red blood cells are round and small, while those formed in cases of B12 deficiency are overly large and oval-shaped. This is known as megaloblastic anemia, a condition in which your marrow produces large, abnormally shaped red blood cells.
Megaloblastic anemia can compromise the cells’ ability to move into the bloodstream quickly enough and lead to pernicious anemia. The intestines can no longer properly absorb B12, thus creating a vicious cycle. There aren’t enough red blood cells transporting oxygen to the organs, causing symptoms like weakness and fatigue. Making sure you get enough vitamin B12 to produce healthy functioning red blood cells is key for preventing anemia.
May Prevent Birth Defects
It’s known that vitamin B12 levels are important during pregnancy, especially in regard to the fetal development of the brain and nervous system. Vitamin B12 deficiency in the early stages of pregnancy could increase such risks as neural tube defects, spinal cord defects, premature birth, or miscarriage.
One study showed that women with lower vitamin B12 levels were 3 times more likely to have a child with birth defects compared to those with sufficient levels, and for those with extremely low levels, the risk was 5 times higher.
May Prevent Osteoporosis
A healthy amount of vitamin B12 may support bone health and decrease the risk of osteoporosis. One study of over 2,500 adults revealed that those with vitamin B12 deficiency had lower bone mineral density, which leads to bone fragility and an increased risk of osteoporosis. Another study showed that low vitamin B12 levels in women showed a correlation with poor bone health, bone loss, and the development of osteoporosis.
Symptoms of B12 Deficiency
Symptoms of B12 deficiency show up as:
- Blurred vision
- Nerve damage
- Tingling in your extremities (hands and feet)
- Excessive sweating
- Difficulty walking
- Problems with digestion
- A sore tongue
If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek advice from a trusted medical professional.
Who Is Most at Risk of Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
Whether it’s from a lack of dietary sources of B12, or an inability to absorb B12 from food once the food is ingested, some groups are more at risk of B12 deficiency than others. It’s estimated that in the United States and the United Kingdom, 6% of adults over the age of 60 have vitamin B12 deficiency, and 20% have low levels of B12 and are borderline deficient. Considering all that B12 does in the body, you may want to concern yourself with your B12 intake levels if you are in any of the following groups.
- Those with gastrointestinal disorders (Crohn’s disease, celiac disease)
- Those who have had gastrointestinal surgeries (bariatric surgery, bowel resection surgery)
- Older people
- Those keeping a vegan diet
- Those taking certain medications for blood sugar control (metformin) or chronic heartburn (proton pump inhibitors)
Many older adults have a reduced secretion of hydrochloric acid in their stomachs, causing a reduction in B12 absorption, while those eating a strict vegetarian or vegan diet might have difficulty getting enough B12 from non-animal sources. If you suspect your body is not absorbing B12 properly, seek a doctor’s advice on the best way to supplement or improve absorption. If you’re looking for plant sources of B12, keep reading!
How to Get Vitamin B12 from Food That Is Vegetarian Approved
The following food list of vitamin B12 sources includes both vegetarian and vegan foods rich in B12. The important takeaway is that it’s not impossible to get vitamin B12 in your diet, no matter how strict it is, and, of course, supplementation is always an option. Regardless, check out these vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 that you can eat to make sure you get the proper amount of B12 per day, which if you remember is only around 2 micrograms.
Ovo-vegetarians already know that eggs are an excellent way to get protein without consuming meat. Eggs contain 0.6 micrograms of vitamin B12 per hard-boiled egg, and can be easily included in meals, especially breakfast. Getting B12 solely from eggs would require eating several eggs per day, but check out the rest of the list to diversify your B12 sources.
Though vegans will not partake in dairy products, vegetarians can easily find B12 in many dairy products, including yogurt (get 1.1 micrograms of B12 per 8-ounce cup), low-fat milk (1.2 micrograms per cup), and Swiss cheese (0.9 micrograms per ounce). With milk in your breakfast cereal, some cheese with lunch, and yogurt as a snack, you’ve covered your recommended daily intake!
Many breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B12 (among so much more), with the specific intent to make sure a bowl of cereal per day can help you cover your nutrient intake. Valuable for adults and children, fortified foods and healthy cereals like Grape Nuts or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes can provide you with well over 1 microgram of B12 per serving—half the daily intake suggestion. Fortified breakfast cereals are also designed with bioavailability in mind for easy, efficient absorption.
Another fortified food well known to vegans and vegetarians is nutritional yeast, which can contain up to 4 micrograms of B12 per tablespoon, twice the suggested daily intake per day. Excellent to sprinkle over popcorn or other savory dishes due to its cheese-like flavor, nutritional yeast is a fantastic source of B12 and more.
An algae commonly eaten in Asian countries and dishes like sushi, nori (or purple laver) is a true plant source of vitamin B12. One study suggests 4 grams of dried purple laver meets the daily required intake of B12. Nori sheets can be easily snacked on throughout the day or combined in your own recipes.
Another rare plant food containing vitamin B12, shiitake mushrooms can contribute to your B12 intake. While it would take about 50 grams of dried shiitake mushrooms to get your daily requirement of B12 from this food alone (an unrealistic amount to eat in one day, let alone every day), it’s still valuable to include not just for a boost of B12, but for its other health benefits, like reducing inflammation and aiding digestive comfort.
B12, Be Optimal
For vegans and vegetarians, it’s wise to be mindful of your daily B12 intake, as it is one of those vitamins necessary for human functioning that is almost exclusively found in meat and animal products. Luckily, it doesn’t take a lot of B12 to maintain optimal health, just a matter of 2-3 micrograms per day for adults (less is needed for children). For its role in preventing birth defects, improving mood, delivering energy, and maintaining youthful skin and hair, B12 is a must eat every day!