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The Importance of Supplementing Vitamin B12 in a Vegan Diet
Good health in humans depends on the complex vitamin identified as vitamin B12. It has a unique absorption mechanism and is generally found in all animal foods, with the exception of honey.
Vegans can argue this point, however there are no known and reliable plant sources of vitamin B12. This is an issue vegans face and a real concern for their health if they don’t supplement their diet. Vitamin B12 deficiency was first recognized and a study was then carried out in the United Kingdom in 1955. The results determined that vegans suffered from a vitamin B12 deficiency – in some cases severe – and that some participants had nerve damage and madness as a result.
Repeated case studies have yielded a consistent result among vegan participants—that vitamin B12 deficiency is widespread. There is an overwhelming consensus among nutrition professionals that vegans should supplement with vitamin B12 to maintain good health. This also applies to vegetarians as in many cases they have also been found to be deficient in vitamin B12.
A vitamin B12 supplement is accepted by vegan health professionals as a suitable supplement since it is not made from animal products, but from bacteria.
There is overwhelming evidence supporting the necessity of vitamin B12 in vegan diets to avoid harm to their health, but there remain defenders of vegans who promote the concept that all the necessary nutrients can be obtained from plant food. Regardless of the issue of vitamin B12 deficiency, these advocates promote a vegan lifestyle.
Other advocates of the vegan diet admit that vitamin B12 is necessary, but do not consider it an important factor – almost as an afterthought. Another common vegan school of thought is that the human body can store vitamin B12 for many years and only small amounts are needed for good health.
It is true that when you go back to veganism, there are many people who have enough B12 stored in their liver to prevent overt B12 deficiency for many years. These circumstances require a person to consume excessive amounts of vitamin B12 over a long period of time. This does not support the argument that only a very small amount of vitamin B12 is required to be consumed every few years. There are also people who do not have the vitamin B12 stores to support optimal health even for a short period of time – we are all different.
Our nervous system is protected by vitamin B12. If we don’t consume enough vitamin B12, permanent damage such as blindness, deafness and even dementia can occur. Fatigue and tingling in the hands and feet are some of the early warning signs of vitamin B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is also essential to help our red blood cells divide. Folate is also essential for processing red blood cell division, and many vegans get enough folate that even with a vitamin B12 deficiency their cells will continue to divide normally. In other cases vegans will not be so lucky and develop macrocytic anemia – the red blood cells will not divide properly and become exhausted.
Another surprising side effect of vitamin B12 deficiency is homocysteine levels in vegans and vegetarians. When we metabolize protein, homocysteine is a byproduct—elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
It found that vegans and vegetarians who did not supplement their diets with vitamin B12 had homocysteine levels in the range associated with heart disease and stroke – significantly higher than meat-eating homos. Compared to those vegans who supplemented their diet, their homocysteine levels were found to be within normal limits.
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