“Food first” is my mantra when it comes to getting the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health. Vitamins and minerals in pill or powder form diminish the power that’s found in whole food. That’s because this process strips away the synergistic benefit provided by the other phytochemicals and fiber that are part of the whole food. In other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. However, I have recently had to make an exception to my “food first” rule.
During my yearly wellness physical, all my lab results were within normal range with one exception – vitamin B12. Being over 50 years of age and following a largely plant-based eating plan, it came as no surprise that I might need to add a source of this important B vitamin.
What is B12’s role?
There are eight known B vitamins. Jumping ahead in the numbering system, B12 is part of this family of water-soluble vitamins. While the B vitamins all play an important role in our health, B12 is integral in red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis, and the functioning of our central nervous system. Inadequate B12 blood levels may lead to the development of megaloblastic anemia, which is characterized by abnormal red blood cells. Fatigue, palpitations, numbness, and tingling of the hands and feet are among the other symptoms resulting from poor B12 status.
Where do we get B12?
Unlike the tangible food we hold in our hands, vitamins and minerals are more elusive to visualize because they are microscopic parts of a food’s building blocks. In the case of B12, it is bound to protein in food and our bodies must unwrap this ‘packaging’ to make B12 available for absorption. This process of extracting B12 starts in the mouth and continues in the stomach. Once freed, B12 is combined with a key protein secreted by the stomach lining, namely, intrinsic factor. This protein helps transport and deliver B12 to the small intestine and then on to the bloodstream.
Vitamin B12 is naturally present in animal proteins including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. In addition, it’s added in its free form to breakfast cereals, soymilk, and nutritional yeast which is readily absorbed.
How Much Do We Need?
For adults, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) to maintain healthy blood levels of B12 is 2.4 micrograms (mcg). To give you a sense of the amount of B12 found in foods in line with the Pritikin Eating Plan, here are a few top sources:
- Clams (without shells), cooked, 3 ounces – 17 mcg
- Tuna, bluefin, cooked, dry heat, 3 ounces – 9.7 mcg
- Nutritional yeast fortified, from several brands, about ¼ cup – 8.3 to 24 mcg
- Soy milk, unsweetened, fortified, 8 ounces – 3 mcg
- Salmon, Atlantic, cooked, 3 ounces – 2.6 mcg
Interestingly, most Americans take in adequate amounts of B12. It’s the decreased production of gastric acids and intrinsic factor as we age that limits our ability to absorb B12. In the United States and the United Kingdom, approximately 6% of adults younger than 60 years have a vitamin B12 deficiency, but the rate is closer to 20% or higher in those older than 60.
Heads up for strict vegetarians or vegans
As you can see from the sources above, for individuals that choose to follow strict vegetarian and vegan diets, B12 sources are limited. Therefore, incorporating a reliable source from fortified foods or a supplement is recommended.
Balancing my skepticism of supplements and my need for a consistent source of B12, I took comfort in the fact that the free form of B12, cyanocobalamin, found in most B12 supplements is readily absorbed. I opted for just a single supplement of B12, and not a multi-vitamin or B-vitamin complex to target just what I need. To ensure quality, I selected a brand that displayed the USP label indicating the B12’s potency and amount listed on the label had been verified through independent testing.
To B or not to B -- supplement that is -- took some thought, but I’m at peace with my decision to give my “food first” intention a little help.