If a vegan diet is so healthful, why does it require supplementation?
If we look at the usage of supplementation, it really isn’t just vegans who are supplementing, with latest figures suggesting 81% of US adults between the ages of 35 and 54 choose to take vitamin supplements. Unfortunately I can tell you 81% of the US population are definitely not on vegan diets. Supplementation is considered so mandatory for pregnant women that one of the first considerations for them is usually to acquire a pregnancy multi or a folate supplement. Supplementation is even commonly seen in the food supply due to widespread deficiencies of folate and iodine- heard of iodised salt?
So, why are there no plant based sources of B12 at all if the vegan diet is so great?
Well actually, there is – google “duck weed”. Duck weed aside, B12 is not made by plants or animals, it is synthesised by bacteria. Back in yesteryear we would have got B12 from microbes left on vegetables and even in our drinking water; due to heavy pesticide use and sanitation of water, this is no longer the case. When we talk about B12 being found in animal foods, it is very common now for animals themselves to require B12 and cobalt supplementation.
So what does this mean for you?
B12 is an ESSENTIAL nutrient; critical for nerve health, red blood cells, DNA synthesis and lowering homocysteine levels; it is extremely dangerous to just take B12 for granted. Any influencers teaching their followers not to worry about supplementation is putting out very irresponsible advice.
When commencing a plant-based diet, best practice is to see via blood tests where your B12 levels are and if still optimum, one oral (sublingual or nanocelle) dose of 50–100 μg daily or 2000-2500 μg taken twice weekly should be sufficient to meet your ongoing needs. Many experts suggest that these levels are not high enough for adults over the age of 65 and it is best to speak to your health care practitioner. Likewise, if levels aren’t optimal it would be wise to speak to a plant based dietitian or naturopath (such as myself) and work with them to rectify this.
Because the body can store a certain amount of B12 and the time it takes people to burn through these stores varies hugely- some people have been fine without supplementation for extremely long durations; these people are the exception not the rule. I strongly recommend getting your full blood count, iron studies, thyroid hormones, B12, blood glucose and lipid panel taken on an annual basis to see how on track you are with your health.
The research is still up in arms over the merits of cyanocobalamin versus methylcobalamin, and so what I like to do personally is switch between the two. Cyanocobalamin has been much better researched and is more stable, whereas methylcobalamin would be a more appropriate choice if you are a known under-methylator, a smoker or have kidney disease. It may be necessary to take higher amounts of methlycobalamin compared to cyanocobalamin (1000 mcg daily). Hydroxcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin are two other forms and there are specific populations that benefit from using them. Again, see your plant based health expert to find the right option for you.
It’s not just vegans who need to be mindful of B12. In fact, the Mayo Clinic suggests that everyone over 50 supplement with B12 as it becomes increasingly difficult for it to be absorbed from food with age.
What are the dangers of too high levels of B12 supplementation?
There have been reports of people suffering from acne, rashes and itching with possible association to B12 supplementation. These reports are rare and likely to be rarer still if B12 supplements are used in appropriate amounts. Without frequent monitoring of B12 levels, it is far too dangerous to avoid supplementation, so please don’t let these rare side effects deter you.
Is B12 a reason not to go vegan?
HELL NO! Supplementation has been shown to be very effective at raising B12 levels, and is incredibly cheap and painless to do. Compared to the incredible benefits you’re likely to enjoy on a healthy plant-based diet, and all the good you’re doing in the world, it’s a tiny price to pay.
Leave a Reply