It's called Vitamin B12 and it's essential for your brain health, DNA synthesis and energy delivery.
You can't get it from plants...
Often labelled as Cobalamin, B12 is the only nutrient that you CANNOT get directly from plants. This is because it's made by tiny microorganisms, bacteria, algae and fungi, but NOT synthesised by plants or animals.
But animal foods like steak and milk contain B12? What's the go?
The reason for this is due to what the animal (e.g. cow) eats. Over the course of an animals day they will consume large numbers of microorganisms along with their food (think grass, hay, etc). These consumed microorganisms in turn end up in their muscles (meat), organs and byproducts (dairy and eggs).
Why is B12 so important?
It’s required for the synthesis of fatty acids in myelin.
Myelin is a fatty white substance that surrounds your nerve cells and forms an electrically insulating layer.
Myelin is essential for your nervous system to function properly.
A nerve cell that is not myelinated, is sort of like dial-up internet (more slow at talking than that girl off Twilight) and a myelinated nerve cell is like super fast broadband after a double espresso (this is good).
It’s required for DNA synthesis – the body’s genetic material.
It helps make red blood cells.
These guys carry oxygen around your body.
Oxygen is needed to keep everything alive.
Oxygen is also used to make energy.
It also plays a role in producing a compound called SAMe.
Low B12 levels can cause...
Tingling in the toes and fingers
Confusion, depression, poor concentration and forgetfulness
I'm plant-based, Vegetarian and Vegan, so where do I get my B12?
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods. So if you eat red meat, chicken, fish, eggs or dairy foods, you are likely getting enough of it.
However, if you avoid animal foods (completely fine to do), this is what you need to do...
1. Fortified foods
You can get plant-based foods that have been fortified with Vitamin B12, for example certain plant-based milks (e.g. soy, rice, oat, almond), meat analogues (e.g. veggie burgers), soy products (e.g. tofu, tempeh), breakfast cereals and nutritional yeasts, are fortified with B12.
Plant-based nutrition experts recommend a total weekly dose of 2000-2500 micrograms of B12.
This can be broken up into daily doses or split into 2-3 doses of 1000 micrograms per week to enhance B12s absorption.
If you’re worried about supplements, note that Vitamin B12 is water soluble, and toxicity is rare!
3. Don't count on this option
Some people preach that you can get adequate B12 from plant foods, however this is not true. Yes, there may be some natural plant-based sources of this important vitamin, including certain algaes and plants exposed to bacterial action, or those contaminated by insects or soil (e.g. some unwashed organic plant foods), but this is not a reliable B12 source.
You therefore cannot count on this option as an adequate source of your B12 needs.
How much Vitamin B12 do I need a day?
Men = 2.4 micrograms per day
Women = 2.4 micrograms per day
Pregnant = 2.6 micrograms per day
Breastfeeding = 2.8 micrograms per day
Take home message
B12 is very important for brain function, energy levels and DNA synthesis.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, a blood test may be recommended.
If you’re eating a plant-based or vegan diet, aim to do one of the following:
Eat plant-based foods fortified with Vitamin B12, two to three times a day. Ensure that the fortified food you’re eating has at least 1 microgram of B12 per serving.
Or take a Supplement that contains at least 10 micrograms of B12 daily.
Or take a B12 supplement once per week that contains 2000-2500micrograms per supplement.