One of the most challenging things about keeping vegan nutrition standards is getting enough vitamin B12, as it occurs exclusively in animal-based foods like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. With the exception of dried seaweed (nori) and fortified vegetarian products, there exist no vegan sources of vitamin B12.
Why go vegan?
Reasons for choosing a vegan diet vary; some choose to cut beef, chicken, cheese, and fish out of their diet in order to lose weight, lower cholesterol, or manage heart disease. For others, veganism is a moral choice, a lifestyle that shuns the consumption of all animal-based products: meat, milk, and fish, but also honey and textiles like leather and fur. For them, the reason for being vegan is about more than nutrition; it’s a philosophy of life.
Vegan nutrition RDA
A healthy vegan diet should include the following:
- Vitamin B12: As mentioned, there are scarce amounts of vitamin B12 in the vegan menu, so it is crucial to supplement with vitamin B12 shots or over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin B12 in order to avoid developing severe vitamin B12 deficiency. (More on this.)
- Complex carbohydrates: It’s important to choose carbohydrates that break down slowly and keep you full for longer, as opposed to sugary starches that enter your bloodstream in a rush and raise your blood sugar. For more energy and good digestion, choose whole vegetables and grains that have plenty of dietary fiber.
- Healthy oils: Believe it or not, certain oils are better for you than others. For heart health, you should cook with vegan oils that are low in saturated fats, such as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated cooking oils. Many are high in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Protein: Although not a good source of vitamin B12, many vegan-based protein foods like beans and nuts are rich in healthy amino acids. Good protein picks include lentils, pressed tofu, and peanut butter. Many of these are also high in iron, another crucial nutrient for optimum vegan nutrition.
- Calcium: Yes, it is possible to get calcium without drinking milk. Many dark green leafy vegetables are rich sources of calcium, including many other essential vitamins and minerals. Start each meal with a mixed green salad of spinach leaves, mustard greens, Bok Choy, and chopped broccoli.
Vitamin B12 deficiency and vegan nutrition
Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the most rampant forms of malnutrition to strike the developing world. This is due to a number of reasons, but one factor worth mentioning here is the rising trend for vegan dieting. There is a lot of misinformation regarding vegan sources of vitamin B12, most of it unsubstantiated and misleading.
In order to get digest vitamin B12 naturally, you need to eat it in foods that contain cyanocobalamin, the animal-based form of vitamin B12, which is also in many supplements. Aside from inserting vitamin B12 directly into your bloodstream, there is no other way of getting enough vitamin B12 into your body to avoid total depletion.
While it’s true that your body stores vitamin B12 in your liver for years, you will eventually drain your supply of vitamin B12, unless you replenish it.
The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency can be severe, debilitating, and sometimes fatal, so it’s worth heeding the warning when planning your vegan nutrition plan.
Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Confusion (brain fog)
- Frequent memory loss
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Painful tingling and numbness in your extremities (hands and feet)
- Muscle spasms and twitching, especially in the face
- Electric shock-like sensations
- Difficulty controlling your arms and legs
- Loss of balance
- Sore, burning sensations in mouth, lips, tongue, and gums
- Altered sense of taste
- Difficulty swallowing
- Vision problems