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November 2, 2018

The Vitamin B12 Issue

by Anne Paddock

Vitamin B12 has always fascinated me and even more so since I started following a whole grain, low oil, whole food plant-based diet (that’s a mouthful). This super vitamin can only be obtained naturally through the consumption of animals and yet, the consumption of animal products have also been shown to do us the most harm. So, there must be something in our physiology to account for this irony.

The answer appears to be related to the amount of animal products consumed. Without going into the whole evolution discussion, suffice to say our ancestors were primarily herbivores who ate meat rarely simply because there wasn’t an abundance of meat readily available (like there is in recent times). Although Vitamin B-12 is water-soluble with leftover amounts leaving the body through urine, our livers store Vitamin B-12 for 3-5 years so if we stop consuming Vitamin B12, our bodies draw on the reserves, which is why we didn’t need to consumer animal products daily.

Several years ago I watched a video about vitamin B12 deficiency and specifically how Vitamin B12-deficient plant-based eaters experience a rise in homocysteine levels which leads to carotid atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), which is what most vegans are trying to avoid by eating a plant-based diet, especially those on a whole grain, low or no oil whole food plant based diet.  The studies discussed in the video advocate for plant-based eaters to either take a Vitamin B12 supplement or eat food that has been fortified with B12 to avoid a deficiency.

So, plant-based eaters face a dilemma that requires adaptation or compromise, in a way. The philosophical beliefs of most plant-based eaters extends to compassion for animals and concern over the effects of modern animal agriculture on the environment. But, if plant-based eaters want to remain healthy, they have to either consume animal products rarely, eat a fortified food (which is the result of our technological advances), or take a vitamin supplement (also a result of our technological advances). That our ancestors didn’t have two out of the three options makes me realize that our bodies did not evolve to either make B12 (which animals do by eating plants from the soil) or get it from a plant source. The most natural way to get the Vitamin B-12 we need is to eat animal products (rarely) but, it’s hard to be a part-time plant-based eater if you’ve also adopted the philosophical and environmental commitments inherent in veganism.

For me, I personally understand the dilemma but cannot consume animal products, even rarely (but not that I wouldn’t if I didn’t have alternatives. For me, knowing the cruel truths about the dairy and meat industry, and the health risks are a strong deterrent). The whole discussion surrounding Vitamin B12 makes me realize that often our health is a result of a very delicate balance that can cause our philosophical and moral beliefs to collide with science and nutrition. Fortunately, plant-based eaters can get Vitamin B12 from fortified foods or supplements so they don’t have to consume animal products to maintain health. And, although I don’t advocate for a diet with animal products, I also recognize that our ancestors didn’t have that choice.

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