I joined the Vegans in India Facebook group earlier today and was disturbed by various comments that I saw on a recent thread, about people following a vegan diet and yet not supplementing it with Vitamin B12. Those who advocate that B12 supplementation is not necessary are being reckless with their own health and irresponsible by misleading others. (Politeness and political correctness be damned! Lives are at stake here.) Please, folks, ignore B12 supplements at your peril. Take it from me, as I was reckless with mine and suffered the consequences.
Here’s my story and why you may want to supplement your vegan diet with Vitamin B12:
I grew up lacto-vegetarian in India and turned vegan at the age of 21, during grad school in the US. I was healthy and athletic. While at home, I would cook my own meals. I was aware of the need to supplement my diet with reliable, external sources of B12, since B12 is not present in significant quantities in foods of plant origin. Yet, I kept putting the supplementation plan off. Blame it on a false sense of security – I had read that an adult’s B12 reserves typically last three years if not replenished – coupled with the stress of grad school (“no time to worry about this now”), the foolish notion that I would be “cheating” if I practiced a vegan diet and yet consumed non-vegan supplements, and ignorance—not knowing that vegan B12 supplements did exist.
About a year-and-a-half after I turned vegan, I began adding vegan, B12-fortified nutritional yeast to the breads that I would bake. (I was no MasterChef; I would simply toss all the ingredients into a bread machine and wake up to the aroma of freshly baked bread!) However, sadly, that was too little and too late. My body’s B12 reserves had run out and I began showing symptoms of megaloblastic anemia. I also had trouble taking notes in class – my beautiful penmanship had become reduced to weak scribbles (“dysgraphia”). The primary-care physician whom I finally consulted called me back immediately after my blood test’s results were ready: I had become deficient in B12. If a normal count was above 200 pg/mL, mine was critically low at 133 pg/mL.
To guard against the possibility that my body was, for whatever reason, getting enough B12 but unable to absorb it – as when an essential lining in the stomach is missing or damaged – I was put on a regimen of monthly mega-doses of B12 injections. It took me MONTHS to get out of that listless, vegetable-like state, and I wouldn’t wish it upon fellow vegans.
So, please, don’t be ignorant. There’s no excuse for ignorance in this information age.
Don’t be pig-headed and put off supplements, either. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause irreparable damage to the nervous system. (My handwriting remains impaired to this day.)
I was, to the extent of becoming deficient in Calcium and Vitamin D also. If you have been vegan for even some months, please do yourself a favor: Go to a reputable hospital or clinic in your city or town and get your Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and Calcium levels checked. A blood test for all three will cost you only about ₹2,000 and potentially save you much time and money down the road. The picture below shows that vitamins that I take regularly as I continue on my vegan diet.
If you are taking Vitamin D supplements, be sure that it is D3 (cholecalciferol), rather than D2 (ergocalciferol). D2 is poorly absorbed by the body. A common source of D3 is lanolin (the oil in sheep’s wool), but vegan D3 supplements are available these days.
Let me end by channeling Steve Jobs: Be vegan, but don’t be foolish.
Featured image courtesy of Chris Salt/Flickr