Living a plant-based lifestyle should not, and is not, equal to living a diet based primarily on supplements or “nutrition” shakes. Being plant-based doesn’t mean looking like an old rubber boot either. Eating a balanced, responsible, and mindful plant-based diet can allow you to thrive mentally, physically, and emotionally. With this in mind, the next several instalments of Conscious Consumption will be focusing in on vitamins, minerals, fats and – dare I say it? – protein.

To begin the series: B vitamins

Discovered only last century, a series of 8 water-soluble vitamins make up the B family. To be considered a vitamin, the organic compounds must be essential for life. B vitamins certainly fit the bill: they are essential for building our DNA, amino acid metabolism, and the health of our skin, among other things. The B vitamins (Biotin, Folate, Pyridoxine, Pantothenic acid, Niacin, Riboflavin, Thiamin, and Cobalamin/B12) can be successfully consumed through the food groups, but when it comes to the last one, B12, special attention should be given for vegetarians/vegans, the elderly, pregnant people, very young children, folks with underlying medical conditions, but basically, everyone. Among other things, B12 is responsible for healthy red blood cells and the proper functioning and maintenance of our nerve cells. Severe B12 deficiency can result in irreversible brain damage, while other manifestations of deficiency (dementia, depression, lack of energy, sleep disturbances, etc.) can usually be reversed with proper supplementation.

Obtaining adequate B12 is a must

As we age, our ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases; in fact, due to changes in our stomach chemistry, after age 50 many will lose the ability to draw B12 from animal-based food proteins and deficiencies may exist in 15% of the population over the age of 60. Thus, supplementation becomes essential in the later years so you can continue to thrive. Remarkably, there are case studies of elderly people where instances of dementia, mood disorders and sleep disturbances subsided upon B12 injections and/or supplementation. The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry even suggests that B12 levels should be a “standard evaluation” in light of “treatment-resistant depressive disorders.”

What is in B12 and how should you consume it?

B12, whether from animal flesh or fortification/supplementation, comes from microorganisms. When eating B12 fortified foods or supplements, you are consuming the microorganism. As Jack Norris, RD states, “ [i]n choosing to use fortified foods or B12 supplements, vegans are taking their B12 from the same source as every other animal on the planet – micro-organisms – without causing suffering to any sentient being or causing environmental damage.”

Recommended daily intake for B12 changes depending on your age and life/health factors, but most doctors and dieticians suggest 10 micrograms (mcg) a day or 2,000 mcg once a week (just 2.4 mcg a day is enough to prevent deficiency, but higher intake is usually recommended for optimal uptake). If you’re eating animal flesh you are likely meeting your guidelines, but remember, there are many factors that can diminish your ability to absorb B12 (age, autoimmune disorders, underlying stomach/digestive dis-orders), so no matter what your diet you may need to pay special attention. As always, speak with a trusted health care provider if you have concerns.

If you’re vegan, you don’t need to feel ashamed or defensive because you can’t find B12 “naturally” in your plant-based diet, nor should you be naïve and think you’ll be fine without fortified foods or supplementation. Be responsible with your health – this goes for folks of all dietary constitutions.

Where to find the Bees? Among the plants.

B12: Fortified nutritional yeast (not all brands are fortified, so read the labels), fortified products (check the nutrition labels), and supplements. There are many B12 vitamin options out there, including vitamin B complexes which contain all 8 B vitamins. They range in price from under $10 to over $30. The cheaper the vitamins, the more fillers (soy, animal by-products, dairy, corn, sugar, things you can’t pronounce) likely present. Above all else, you’re looking for a product with “cobalamin” or “cyanocobalamin.”

Riboflavin (B2): Although present in our food (whole grains and leafy greens, for example), special planning may be required to ensure vitamin B2 is making its way into your diet. Fortified nutritional yeast should contain it, but note that UV rays destroy B2, so it must be stored in a dark glass or opaque container (which is unfortunate as most nutritional yeast comes in bulk bins or clear plastic bags). Similarly, the concentration of B vitamins in fortified foods (such as cereal) decreases over time, so be sure you’re getting your B vitamins from a variety of sources to ensure adequate uptake.

B1 through Biotin. The other B vitamins can be easily accessed through a balanced diet containing lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fats, and legumes (leafy greens, asparagus, sweet potatoes, beets, buckwheat, corn, soybeans, almonds, cashews, and avocados, as examples). Some B vitamins are even synthesized in our intestines adding to daily intake.

B warned: some seaweeds, algae powders (like Spirulina), and tempeh products will claim to contain B12. These are not reliable sources of B12. In fact, some (specifically seaweeds and Spirulina) act as analogs and can actually inhibit the absorption of true B12. Thus, it might be a good idea to take any B supplements a couple of hours apart from green algae products. If you’re concerned about your B12 levels, ask to have your homocysteine or methylmalonic acid (MMA) levels checked.

Disclaimer: posts in Conscious Consumption are not to be taken as medical advice. They are devised from the author’s own research and sometimes from conversations with health professionals. Please seek out a health-care professional if you’re considering major changes in your diet/lifestyle, or if you have questions/concerns about your health.