Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that keeps you body’s blood and nerve cells in good condition and is important for the production of DNA, the genetic material stored in your cells. It also plays a fundamental role in preventing several health conditions. However, it’s mostly found in meat and fish, so getting it can be hard for people avoiding these foods.
The following information is based on guidance extracted from official, trustworthy sources and health-related institutions, as linked where appropriate. Always talk to your doctor or registered dietitian before making major changes to your diet, as this does not constitute medical advice and shouldn’t be taken as such.
How much vitamin B12 do I need?
Before diving in, you might be wondering whether you are getting enough vitamin B12. How much is enough? This depends on your age and whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The American National Institutes of Health claim that 2,4 mcg should be enough daily for those above the age of 19. That’s the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), which is the average level of intake sufficient to meet the requirement of most healthy individuals. If you are pregnant, that number raises to 2,6 mcg, and 2,8 if you’re breastfeeding. Those below the age of 14 require lower intakes.
The NHS, for its part, sets this requirements at about 1,5 microgram a day for adults aged 19 to 64.
Where can I get it, if not from meat?
There’s no point in denying it: because vitamin B12 is almost exclusively present in animal foods, without supplements your options are more limited if you don’t eat any of those. As a factsheet by the US National Library of Medicine states, not only are plants comparatively low on this nutrient, they are also a poor option because our bodies aren’t able to absorb as much vitamin as they do when getting it from animal sources. Therefore, plants are “not thought to be good sources of the vitamin”.
What are the alternatives, then? In a vegan diet guide, the NHS lists a few foods that contain B12. Most of them are fortified, which means the vitamin has been added to them:
Some breakfast cereals: although no plants contain vitamin B12 naturally, it’s possible to find some cereals that are fortified with B12. The amount of vitamin available in these will vary depending on the brand, so make sure to check the nutrition label.
Milk and dairy products: animal milks and dairy products can be a good alternative to meat and fish. Milk can be “one of the simplest ways to add vitamin B12 to your diet”, the NHS says. Since you will need something to do with those cereals, this is a way to increase your intake. Some vegans cheeses are also fortified, but you should always read the labels.
Fortified non-animal milks like soya, rice milk or oat milk.
Fortified yeast extracts, like marmite, as well as fortified versions of yeast.
You should not turn to certain foods as B12 sources, the NHS says. These include fortified algae and seaweed like spirulina or miso. These can be deceiving, because they contain an inactive form of the vitamin that your body cannot use. You shouldn’t rely on beer or standard yeast, either.
As you can see, people who simply avoid eating meat will have it easier, as fish is a good source, just like clams. Vegetarians can still count on milk and dairy products, but their options are still limited. As for vegans, they can get vitamin B12 through supplements, the NHS continues. If you’re vegan and also breastfeeding your needs are even more important.