Something Missing? Vitamin B12 Deficiency & Diet.

Via Lorin Arnold
on Dec 4, 2011
get elephant's newsletter


There are many vitamins and minerals that we hear about in the media, from medical professionals, and from our parents/family growing up.

We mostly understand that we require some calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and iron.  We understand that we need protein (though there are very interesting debates about how much).

It’s sometimes hard to know what vitamins and minerals should be supplemented and which ones don’t need to be.  For those who are vegetarian or vegan, the constant “how do you get your iron?” and “how do you get your protein?” (repeat for calcium) questions are enough to make us pay attention to those issues, determine the levels we believe research supports, and develop strategies for how to meet them.

However, many people have no clue about the B vitamins, because we just don’t hear about them as much.  Vitamin B12 can be a challenge for those on a vegan diet who do not consume fortified food/drink (like soymilk).  Raw vegans may be even more inclined to a B12 deficiency.  Other dietary choices or restrictions can also be associated with lower levels of B12 consumption.

Why is this important? B12 is a vitamin that the body requires (like folic acid) to make red blood cells.  I’m sure that I don’t need to explain that red blood cells are pretty important to our oxygenation and thus our overall health and wellness.  At the moment, I’m a little anemic, due to some medication that I’ve been taking, and I can testify that it’s not a happy thing to be short on red blood cells.  B12 also contributes to our neurological functions, which I would say that most of us appreciate.

In a typical Westernized diet, people generally absorb sufficient quantities of B12 by eating meat, eggs, and dairy products. Those who consume a raw vegan diet – or vegan with no supplemented items, or those who eat a very limited variety of foods (which can be more common in older adults), may find it very difficult to consume adequate B12.  Additionally, some medical conditions (including Crohn’s disease) and medications (including popular stomach acid reducers) may make it hard for the body to absorb enough B12 through diet.

Often, we are unaware that we have a B12 deficiency unless/until it becomes severe.  Symptoms can include fatigue, bleeding gums, weight loss, dizziness.  Persistent B12 deficiency can even lead to nerve damage and the associated physical and mental symptoms.

If you suspect that you have a B12 problem, your physician can test for anemia and B12 levels.  However, even if you don’t think testing is needed, it’s probably a good idea to think about how much B12 you are consuming and whether you need to supplement your dietary levels.  For those on a vegan, but not raw, diet, some soy milks and nutritional yeasts, and other processed vegan foods may be fortified with B12. For individuals on a raw diet, B12 (or full spectrum B) vitamins are readily available in most pharmacies, GNC stores, or online.

If you would like more information about the role of B12 in the body and supplementation, check out:

American Family Physician article on B12 deficiency

The Vegetarian Society B12 information sheet

Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet from the National Institute of Health

A recent NY Times article about B12 deficiency and neurological symptoms of aging


About Lorin Arnold

I'm a university professor, not-that-kind-of-doctor, family and gender communication scholar, spouse, vegan (not a real fur), and mother of six.  I'm a little goofy and a little serious, organized and kind of a mess. In my "spare" time, I teach yin and vinyasa yoga and write The VeganAsana - a blog about yoga and green eating/cooking.  I consider the blog, and my work with elephant journal my little effort to ponder yoga and veganism, and how they intersect, in a way that helps me develop understandings of self, provides information for others, and allows me to rock my creative smarty pants.


20 Responses to “Something Missing? Vitamin B12 Deficiency & Diet.”

  1. Lorin says:

    Thanks, Hal! This is very helpful. I've added it to the links above.

  2. Danielle says:

    Yes… I never gave B12 a thought until I began to experience numbness in my hands and feet and difficulty thinking clearly. It took several doctors more than a year to figure it out.

  3. Louise Brooks says:

    Thank you for the article. I would like to add though that having to take B12 supplements means a vegan diet is not "natural". If you cannot get all the nutrients your body needs, from your diet, then your diet is wrong.

  4. SOFLY_Anna says:

    Very useful info. Thank you!

  5. SOFLY_Anna says:

    what is natural?

  6. This is really helpful Lorin! Sublingual B12 is my go-to fix for 3 pm blahs. Much better at that time of day than another cup of coffee which would just keep me up all night!

  7. guest says:

    yeah well, I just got the same lecture about calcium and vitamine D. meh.

  8. Lorin says:

    Jennifer, I read in my research that it doesn't appear that the shots have any more effectiveness than using oral supplements, but I haven't seen anything that says that they are bad for you beyond some potential minor side effects..

  9. Lorin says:

    You know, I rarely think about that option, but I should!

  10. guest says:

    There's a terrific book on the subject of B12 deficiency called "Could It Be B12?" The recent NY Times article touched upon this problem, but the book completely details the issue and discusses treatment.

  11. Ron Smith says:

    Another really important need of Vit B12. I am on medication for gastric reflux disease and it blocks Vit B12 in the system causing mouth ulcers, many of them. A 1000 ugm dose Vit B12 daily solves that problem about 95% of the time.

  12. […] not be natural. Biologically, we are designed to eat meat. Right? Otherwise we wouldn’t need vitamin B12, wouldn’t have teeth designed to rip flesh, […]

  13. meredithjpotter says:

    Thanks for writing about B vitamins!

  14. warren says:

    B12 also helps keep the bursa sacs full where bone meets bone in the body.
    I just read that Purslane is a good source of B12, and the only vegetable source. A green leafy weed? I'd never even heard of it before so I'm curious where to find it & what it tastes like.
    sub-lingual 1000mcg, as mentioned, is a no-brainer.

  15. Lorin says:

    Purslane tastes great. It's sort of peppery and light with a greens flavor. You might be able to find it at places like Wegmans or other more "healthy" groceries or at a farmers market in season (or your yard!). I have never read that it contains B12, only Omega-3 acids.

  16. Veggiegirl says:

    B12 does not come from animals. It is from bacteria. So whether I eat b12 from bacteria in a human raised and slaughtered cow, fed in a feedlot, given antibiotics etc, or get my b12 from bacteria isolated by a human in the lab, what’s the difference? Neither is “natural” but what is? Our houses? Computers? Clothing?

  17. Veggiegirl says:

    Thanks for the important article in b12. My fave resource on b12 is it is extremly comprehensive

  18. […] I was noticing more alertness, wakefulness even until late at night. Then, I switched the time I was taking my B12 and that seemed to even things out. Except for when I decide it’s a good idea to hit the […]

  19. […] has a mental health condition. Some require medication. Some […]