Now that we've crushed some myths about protein and looked at ways to get your daily protein intake on a plant-based diet, let's look at some of the other nutrients that are of particular concern to vegans and vegetarians. For vegans especially, one of the big ones is Vitamin B12, since it's almost exclusively found in animal foods.
What is Vitamin B12?
It's actually a microbe that typically lives in the guts of animals. It can also be found in the soil where vegetables are grown, but unless you're eating dirty vegetables, you're probably not getting any Vitamin B12 from produce.
What does Vitamin B12 do?
B12 keeps your nerve and blood cells healthy and helps you make DNA, the genetic material in all your cells. It also helps to prevent anemia, which can make you feel tired and weak.
How much B12 do we need?
Human adults need about 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 per day. Pregnant women need about 2.6 micrograms, and breastfeeding women about 2.8 micrograms.
Can I store up Vitamin B12 for later?
Your body can only absorb a certain amount of B12 at one time. Whatever isn't absorbed leaves the body through your urine. Of the B12 that's absorbed, any excess is stored in the liver, and can stay there for years for the body to tap into if it needs it.
Where do I get B12 if I don't eat animal products?
Unfortunately, without animal products, we must rely on supplements in some form, whether tablets or fortified foods. A number of foods are fortified with B12.
If I can't get B12 from plants, does that mean I'm designed to eat animal products?
Maybe. To paraphrase Dr. Thomas Campbell, I don't believe that humans evolved to be strict vegans. We know that our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, and that humans have been eating meat in some quantity for a very long time, in all sorts of climates, on every continent we inhabit. (Hunter-gatherers were probably also eating some vegetables that were not washed before consumption, and therefore may have been ingesting some B12 from soil as well.)
But most of us these days don't hunt for our food, we rely on farmers to grow it. Were human bodies designed to survive on agriculture and to eat meat in the quantities most of us do today? The rise in the incidence of chronic diseases and their correlation to the consumption of animal products, particularly red meat, leads me to believe that the answer is no.
If you choose not to eat animal products and get your Vitamin B12 from a supplement, you're simply swapping one unnatural habit for another. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that switching to a plant-based diet can help prevent and even reverse the onset of these chronic diseases.
Maybe our ancestors ate meat, but they certainly didn't have eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch AND beef for dinner. They shared their kill when they were able to get it, and likely used the entire animal, wasting nothing. If you had to hunt for eggs, chickens, and cattle, and kill the animals yourself in order to sustain your diet, you would probably reach for plants more often. It's my belief that the human body was designed to eat mostly plants.
For the record, I haven't made up my mind yet whether to remain a vegan or even a vegetarian indefinitely. I think that being informed about where your food comes from is the most important step towards sustainability, and there are farmers who raise animals in an ethical, sustainable way.
The more research I do, however, the more I am convinced that if we choose to consume animal products, we must rethink how much of them we are eating, treating them as a special occasion food or a flavoring rather than the main event of every meal. And it is our responsibility make sure we are obtaining our animal products from regenerative farmers who put as much back into the land as they take from it.
If I'm not a vegan or vegetarian, where do I get my B12?
B12 is present in red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and seafood, including shellfish. If you are eating animal products, it's best to opt for pasture-raised meat, dairy, and eggs. Among other benefits, they have a much higher dose per serving of B12 than their non-pasture-raised counterparts. Eggs from pasture-raised hens have up to 70% more B12 than your typical supermarket egg. When it comes to choices about fish, there are plenty of reasons to opt for wild fish over farmed, but here's one more: according to the National Institute of Health, wild trout contains almost twice as much B12 as farmed trout.
How do I know if I'm getting enough B12?
A simple blood test can check your levels of B12. Testing once every five years or so should be sufficient to keep you in check, especially if you're a meat eater, but if you're concerned there's no harm in testing annually.
Soon I'll be looking at Calcium, another important nutrient for plant-based peeps to be aware of. Stay tuned, and in the mean time, eat your veggies!
Please note that the terms "organic", "cage-free", "free range" and "antibiotic free" do not necessarily mean pasture-raised, and there is a BIG difference. Small Footprint Family has a great post about de-mystifying all the nomenclature surrounding animal products, specifically eggs. If you're not sure whether the animal product you're buying is pasture-raised, the best thing to do is to buy it somewhere you can actually speak to the farmer and ask about her/his farming practices. Be suspicious of all claims about animal welfare that you see on foods sold in a supermarket. Knowledge is power, and in this case, it's health.