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Nutrition 101: The B12 Debate

Posted Mar 06 2013 11:47am

It’s been ages since I’ve done a proper Nutrition 101 post! Time to dust off our notebooks and get down to business!

The B12 Discussion

Ah, b12, the age old thorn in the eye of the vegan community. B12 is the only vitamin that plant eaters can not get from their food and thus have to supplement with. As you can imagine, those in favor of eating meat use this in their arguments against a plant based diet. Understandable, given their reasoning is if a completely plant based diet were so healthy and ‘natural’, why would you have to supplement in the first place? Understandable yes, if you don’t have a clue about what b12 is and how this vitamin works in the body. So let’s find out and dissolve the confusion shall we?

The Deal With Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is synthesized by soil bacteria. Animals ingest these bacteria with their feed or through grazing, and the bacteria colonize the colon and start producing B12. When humans kill and eat animals, the b12 in their tissue then ends up in their bodies. This does not, however, mean we are and always have been dependent upon eating our furry friends for b12! In simpler times, us humans too ate our veggies with some of the dirt still on it and so obtaining our b12. Nowadays though, thanks to the whole germophobia we near sterilize and irradiate all our food, and with that killing and eliminating all these helpful bacteria. Bummer, because this means it is very very hard, if not impossible, to obtain (enough) b12 through a plant based diet. Some plants, like algae, contain b12 analogues, which do not contribute to healthy b12 levels in humans (and can actually have adverse effects on our b12 levels!)

How B12 Works & The Dangers of B12 Deficiency

B12 deficiency is no walk in the park. B12 deficiency can lead to serious degenerative nervous issues when untreated. B12 works together with folate (B11) to create our genetic make-up. B12 keeps homocysteine levels low which lowers the risk for stroke and heart attack.

We only need infinite-small amounts of b12 (about 2.4 micrograms a day) and our bodies can reuse (reabsorb) b12 for years before we run out. Quite practical, yes, but it also makes that a lot of people think they are doing just great without supplementing with b12, while in fact they are using their reserve which is bound to run out at some point.

B12 Controversies – To Supplement Or Not To Supplement

B12 is a hot topic and I would love to see much more research into this vitamin and its workings. For example, did you know a lot of meat eaters are deficient in B12 also? The percentages of vegetarians, vegans and meat eaters being deficient in b12 are very close, which clearly indicates there’s more to this vitamin than meets the eye. There are factors that influence b12 absorption, making it more complicated than simply amount of b12 consumed. There are also very strong indications b12 reabsorption by the body goes way up when people switch to a plant based diet. Fascinating, no?

All in all, everyone is potentially at risk for b12 deficiency, and a shocking percentage of society is walking around with undiagnosed b12 deficiency. However, when you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, your risk goes up, simple as that. Meat eaters are at risk because their bodies might, for some reason, not absorb the b12 efficiently, but vegetarians usually consume too small amounts of b12 and vegans don’t get any new supply of b12 at all. These are simple facts.

Now the answer to the question to supplement or not to supplement is a little less simple, or so it seems. Mainstream nutrition(ists) dictate b12 supplementation is the only way to ensure healthy longterm b12 levels for vegetarians and vegans. Some people in the raw food and/or vegan community disagree, for various reasons. Some are simply against supplementation in general. Others claim b12 is not an essential vitamin for humans. Others again believe that we can get our b12 from eating unwashed produce and/or from algae containing b12.

Here’s my two cents. Over the past 3 years I have gone back and forth myself over this issue. I even made an effort to get b12 in the ‘natural’ way by eating raw goats cheese about a year and a half ago, after not wanting to be dependent on a pill for an essential nutrient (however I soon realized I’d still have to supplement because cheese alone doesn’t contain enough b12 in the long run). For the past year or so, after not supplementing with b12 for some time, I started taking something called ‘essential microorganisms’. This is basically soil nourishment used by farmers, it contains the bacteria that synthesize b12. Later I discovered it is very likely this is a not a good way either. At the moment I am only taking a b12 sublingual once every few weeks, and yes I do eat unwashed produce (not necessarily for b12 purposes). I am using my intuition here and try and work closely with my body.

Is this something I prescribe when working with clients? No. Because with b12, you really rather be safe than sorry, and I can’t intuit a persons b12 needs. And I rather have someone supplementing with b12 (which is harmless even if you didn’t need the b12) than a lawsuit for someone developing a b12 deficiency under my care ;) .

I have heard quite a few stories of people not supplementing and it causing major health problems. On the other hand I know long term vegans (10,20,30 years) who never supplemented with b12 and are in perfect health.

Bottom line? If you don’t eat meat, get yourself a b12 supplement. If you’ve been on the path for a while, know how to feel into your body, and have done your own research on b12, then you might, perhaps, come to other conclusions.

So how do you feel about b12 and supplementation? Do you supplement or not?


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