Supplements for a Vegetarian Diet
Why is Vitamin B12 important? What are the best sources, and why is it a special consideration if you eat vegetarian or vegan? Let’s hit the high points!
What is B12 and why should I care?
There are 8 different B vitamins, all of which are water-soluble (versus fat soluble), including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), pyridoxine (B6) and cyanocobalamin (B12).
In particular, B12 is important because it helps to maintain healthy nerve cells by synthesizing the myelin sheath – or protective coating – of nerve fibers…no big deal, right?! Who needs a myelin sheath anyway?? B12 also works closely with B9 (folate or folic acid) to make red blood cells, which transport oxygen to your tissues and carry carbon dioxide away – also very helpful, unless you plan on hiring this one out. B12, B9, and B6 all work together to control the blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, high levels of which are associated with heart disease (although whether it’s just a marker or a causal factor isn’t totally clear).
How do I get B12?
B12 is found naturally in animal products (meat, eggs, poultry, fish, and dairy), which is why strict vegans and even vegetarians may find themselves with low levels. Vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs will benefit from those sources. B12 is also present in certain fortified cereals and nutmilks.
Although there are claims that you can meet your B12 requirements with fermented foods, yeast, and algaes, you may find that no one will really be pumped to eat with you. But from an arguably more important scientific perspective, these claims are not proven to be reliable, since the form of B12 available in these foods is not the kind your body can best utilize.
What can happen if my levels are low?
Low levels of B12 can produce varied symptoms, none of which are going to leave you feeling your best and some of which can be a pretty big deal in extreme cases: fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, memory loss, irregular menstrual cycles, imbalance, muscle weakness or stiffness, tingling of fingers and toes, and even eventually, nerve damage.
If you are deficient in B12, it’s likely that getting your stores back up should boost your energy, memory, concentration, and mood. So if you eat vegetarian or vegan and are feeling like an exhausted, cranky, unfocused, hot mess, try supplementing with a little B12 before you throw in the towel! (Although, note that if you already have sufficient stores of B12 in the body, it’s not likely that you will see improvements in energy, mood, etc. just from supplementing.)
Okay, so now what?
Although I would never suggest adding a supplement without discussing it with your physician, Vitamin B12 isn’t something you can typically overdose on, since it is water soluble and excess can therefore be flushed from the body. If you eat vegetarian (and definitely if you are vegan), it’s a good idea to add a supplement if you aren’t already taking one.
If you are curious, check with your doctor, who can also run a blood test to check your levels. You should definitely consult with your doctor if you have any major health issues, an eye condition known as Leber’s disease, or if you take certain medications that may interact with high doses of B12 (such as metformin, proton pump inhibitors, and anti-seizure meds).
B12 supplements come in many forms, including tablets, sublingual, liquid, and sprays. I take sublingual tablets, which dissolve under your tongue. The brand I’ve been using lately, Deva, is pictured above. For a larger dose, B12 shots are an option, but typically require a prescription and physician oversight.
Things to consider when you buy B12:
- The form of B12: I’ve read reports that methylcobalamin is the form that is absorbed most easily (because it does not need to be converted in the body and is “ready to use”), but have seen other reports stating that the form doesn’t matter in term of absorption percentage. What I would take into consideration is that cyanocobalamin contains a small cyanide component that needs to be separated out and detoxified by the body. I choose to stick with methylcobalamin.
- The dose: If you have blood level results and a physician’s recommendations for dosing, go with that. Otherwise, if you are a healthy individual just wishing to add a supplement, 500 – 1000mcg are common over the counter doses.
- If you are vegetarian or vegan, be sure to read the label to make sure it complies with your dietary choices/restrictions.
And before you go, check out some of my favorite vegetarian recipes here, including this Crockpot Red Lentil Vegetable Curry and these Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burgers with Feta Cilantro Sauce!