Both strict vegans and non-vegetarians are likely to be super unhealthy otherwise.
A vegan is a person who chooses to live a life without consuming any animal products – foods like eggs, honey, meat, and even dairy. Being a vegan requires a lot of thought, effort, and, of course, easy access to good quality produce.
Veganism does not ‘just’ mean excluding certain foods. In fact, it is more about eating enough of the right foods to meet all our dietary requirements.
Understanding this distinction is important as, when followed the wrong way, a lot of nutrients might get short-changed and you might end up in a state of nutrient deficiency.
However, on a vegan diet, some nutrients can prove to be quite elusive, so it is important to focus on them consciously. According to long-standing research, Vitamin B12 is one such nutrient.
Why Is Vitamin B12 Critical?
There are lots of reasons for this. When deficient, Vitamin B12 – also called cobalamin – can be a harbinger of multiple health problems.
It is called the energy vitamin for a reason.
Vitamin B12 is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen all over the body. Without enough oxygen in your cells, you'll be prone to feeling tired.
Fatigue, in fact, is one of the first signs of Vitamin B12 deficiency. Numbness and a "pins and needles" sensation are indications too.
Rapid heartbeat, brain fog, dizziness, forgetfulness, disorientation, and difficulty in thinking and reasoning are other tell-tale signs.
All of this is due to nerve damage triggered by chronic low oxygen levels in the cells.
Unexplained mood swings and persistent anxiety are also symptoms of low B12 levels as it is needed for the synthesis of brain chemicals – serotonin and dopamine – that help regulate mood.
Long term B12 deficiency can affect our heart's health too, as it leads to increased homocysteine levels that can promote blockages in arteries and thus up the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Vegans have been found to have a higher risk of bone fractures compared to individuals from other diet groups. The widespread inadequate B12 levels among vegans are now being considered as a possible reason for weaker bones.
How To Get Enough of Vitamin B12?
So, the best course of action for a strict vegan is to consciously add fortified cereals and nutritional yeast fortified with Vitamin B12 to their diet and take regular supplements to meet the need for this critical micronutrient.
Some specific foods like spirulina, nori, and barley grass are suggested as non-animal sources of B12 but there isn’t enough evidence that they help much.
The major problem is the slow and silent onset of the deficiency of this vitamin.
The body has a B12 store that can last for up to four years without external supplementation, but once these stores are depleted, the damage can be brutal; some of the symptoms may be severe while others may be irreversible.
In some people, the problems may begin within a year. So ensure that you get enough of Vitamin B12.
Its deficiency can be easily avoided, but the problem occurs when people adopt a vegan lifestyle without being aware of the need to ensure having adequate levels of Vitamin B12.
If you are a vegan, the vitamin's best sources – eggs, fish, meat, and poultry – are out of bounds for you. In that case, you need to screen regularly for its deficiency.
(Kavita is a nutritionist, weight management consultant, and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico), Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa), and Fix it with foods.)