Vegetarian - vitamin B-12 deficient?

Originally Published: September 5, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 22, 2010
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My friend recently got a blood test back from her doctor and she was told she was deficient in Vitamin B12. She is a vegetarian. What can she do to supplement this vitamin if she does not eat meat?

Animal lover

Dear Animal Lover,

Vitamin B-12 is important in the formation of nerve cells and red blood cells. It is not found in significant amounts in any plant foods, so vegetarians need to be conscious about diet in order to get sufficient amounts. Both vegetarians and vegans (people who avoid all animal products: meat, eggs, dairy, honey, leather, silk, etc.) have various options for obtaining sufficient amounts of vitamin B-12. For vegetarians, milk, yogurt and eggs supply plenty of B-12. Fortified cereals, fortified soy beverages, or fortified meat substitutes are options for vegans or vegetarians as well. Many vitamin supplements also contain B-12. Consuming 5 micrograms per day is recommended. As with all vitamins and minerals, having a diverse diet helps the body obtain what it needs from a variety of sources. Pregnant and breast-feeding women need to be especially conscientious about consuming sufficient amounts of B-12, as the developing fetus and nursing baby draw from the mother's store of the vitamin.

Although some seaweed, yeast and soy products advertise that they contain B-12,  there are actually two forms of B-12, active and inactive. Unless these foods are fortified with an active form of B-12 (cyanocobalamin or hydroxocobalamin), they will not serve as significant sources of useful B-12.

Signs of B-12 deficiency may take months or years develop. They include anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Long-term effects may be neurological changes such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Additional signs of B-12 deficiency are difficulty in maintaining balance, depression, confusion, dementia, poor memory, and soreness of the mouth or tongue. But be advised that these can also be symptoms of many different ailments, so having a blood test from a doctor like your friend did can help with diagnosis.

If your friend is a Columbia student and wants more information, she may want to make an appointment with a nutritionist at Health Services x4-9840.

Happy healthy eating!