Why vegans and now also vegetarians need to monitor Vitamin B12 levels

We have known for some time that vegans are at a particular risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency but new research has now shown that even vegetarians could also be at risk. A German research team who studied 174 people living in Germany and the Netherland published their findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stating that 92% of the vegans they studied has a deficiency of vitamin B12. More surprising however was that two thirds of the vegetarians included in the study also had a deficiency – the difference between the diet of the two sets of participants was that the vegans had absolutely no animal products whatsoever whereas the vegetarians were having milk and eggs as their only animal products. It goes to show though that even with some animals products they were still struggling to get the required levels of B vitamins and may be something that many vegetarians are unaware of. In contract, only 5% of people who ate meat in the study had a B12 deficiency. Many people take multivitamins to try and counteract deficiencies from diet but as they are combined vitamins the individual levels aren’t that high and may not be enough.

What are the risks of a B12 deficiency?

The main one is heart disease. Homocysteine is an amino acid with strong links to heart disease and when someone has a deficiency of vitamin B12 these levels of homocysteine increase therefore potentially leading to a higher risk of heart disease in the future. This amino acid is also linked to increase risks of a stroke. Meat and fish are very high in B12 but the problem is that it is not found in any plant based foods other that highly fortified cereals. Milk and eggs do contain B12 but at much lower levels than in meat and fish.

A vitamin B12 deficiency is also a problem for meat eaters

Meat eaters may rejoice at the news that they shouldn’t have any issues in getting enough B12 but that isn’t the case. Another study found that out of all the meat eaters, many of whom also took nutritional supplements for B12, 40% of the 3,000 participants under 50 had a deficiency serious enough to cause health issues. It is thought that the reason for this isn’t the lack of B12 being taken in but issues with the absorption of it in to the body. One of the theories is that acid reflux medication could be behind this.

What are the symptoms and what can you do to rectify a B12 deficiency?

Typical symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency are fatigue, weakness, nausea, constipation and perhaps most surprising, anaemia. Most people who suspect they have anaemia will focus on Iron as their main deficiency but in actual fact B12 also causes it. More long terms deficiency from B12 can lead to nerve damage like numbness and tingling in your hands and feet, balance and memory problems as well as depression.

In order to rectify a deficiency it depends on your situation, as we mentioned earlier highly fortified cereals are a great way for vegans and vegetarians to increase intake naturally but in the short term if may be best to supplement and have vitamins with B12.