I can’t tell you how many people I run into that “like” the idea of a plant-based diet, but say it didn’t work for them. They started to feel weak or lose energy for workouts. Oftentimes, they blame it on protein – but chances are, that isn’t the problem. A vegan diet can be a little tricky in terms of getting optimal nutrition – especially if you just don’t know what to eat and stick to plain salads and bread. A varied vegan diet can provide all the nutrition you need says the American Dietetic Association. If this conservative, in-the-hand-of-big agro-business group says you can get everything you need from a vegan diet – you most certainly can.
With any diet, you should be aware of what you are putting into your body. It truly amazes me that people just don’t know what is in their food – after all, this food becomes you and directly impacts your energy levels, health and appearance. We’ll spend billions on beauty products, supplements and medications when all you have to do is put the right things into your mouth.
B12 is one of the big vitamins that vegans really do have to take as a supplement. B12 is essential to cell division and blood formation. Without enough B12, you can suffer symptoms such as numbness and tingling, difficulty controlling muscles, fatigue, memory loss, difficulty focusing, anemia and weakness. These symptoms usually appear gradually and intensify with time, but can come on quickly. Older people often experience B12 deficiency due to the decline in stomach acid production that occurs as you age – your body simply doesn’t process the vitamin as efficiently. Vegans are at risk because plants don’t make vitamin B12. Animals don’t make it either – they just eat things contaminated with bacteria that make it – and by default, become sources of it.
Sea vegetables (think nori/kelp/dulse), tempeh and miso are sometimes said to be sources of B12, but the Vegan Resource Group says they are not reliable sources. You don’t need a lot of B12 daily, but you do need some. You can get it from nutritional yeast, specifically a brand known as Red Star T-6645+. It has a cheesy taste – really. It is a flakey product that you can stir into marinara sauce to mimic Parmesan, sprinkle over popcorn (my 7-year-old loves it), toss into salad or mix into salad dressings, blend into a smoothie, stir up with almond milk, flour and salsa to create a “nacho” cheese sauce or add to soups and other sauces for flavor. It is inexpensive and two teaspoons provide the recommended amount of B12 for adults.
If you aren’t ready to stock your pantry with nutritional yeast, fortified soy milk and other fortified “vegan” foods contain some B12. But, regularly including these foods can cause you to fall back into pitfall 1 of junk veganism.
Choosing a supplemental pill or liquid can be confusing. Look for one that includes at least 250 mcg of B12 – you need to take more of the vitamin than is recommended to allow for the fact that your body doesn’t always process nutrition from pills efficiently. Take it daily, or go for 1,000 mcg pills 3 times per week. Good luck on remembering those, though. Opt for one made with methylcobalamin, a natural kind of B12 that comes from bacteria and that your body can actually process. Avoid cyanocobalamin sourced B12. You’ll have to read your labels and do some searching. Sublingual (dissolve under the tongue) forms are most often recommended, but talk to your doctor about the patch or injections (especially if you have intrinsic factor, I won’t get into that here, but it basically means you have trouble absorbing B12).
You may have heard that bacteria in your large intestine produces some B12. While this is true, we don’t seem to absorb it. You might get a trace amount if you have poor post-bathroom hygiene habits, but I don’ t think anyone would recommend this. You may also have heard that certain vegetables (mushrooms, spinach) grown in soil treated with manure contain B12. At this point, it is unclear if this B12 is processed by the human body or an inactive form. The vegetables contain such trace amounts, that even if you can process it – you’ll have to eat 23 cups of spinach to get a day’s worth of B12 notes the Vegetarian Resource Group.