Spend a few minutes reading any health magazine or browsing a food trend website, and it soon becomes obvious that the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle is not only hot, but shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
In fact, a recent, marketing data report found that in 2017, almost half of German consumers reported following a diet that was low in meat, which was significantly higher than only a quarter of all consumers in 2014.1 Furthermore, the number of Americans who reported following a vegan lifestyle increased from 1 percent in 2014 to 6 percent in 2017.
Odds are good that you are nodding along with this trend, as you are already well aware of the health benefits that your patients can obtain from increasing their daily intake of fruits and vegetables. In fact, odds are quite good that a significant portion of your patients who see you for regular wellness visits may already be following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
While you should certainly encourage your vegetarian and vegan patients to keep to a healthy diet, it is important to make certain that they are still getting the nutrients that usually come from animal protein sources through proper vitamin and mineral supplementation.
Vitamin B12 is an excellent example of a nutrient that is rarely found outside of animal protein sources, so can be difficult for vegetarian and vegans to obtain in sufficient amounts.2,3
What does vitamin B12 do?
Vitamin B12 is crucial for a number of functions in the human body, including formation of red blood cells, creation and regulation of DNA, neurological function and energy production. Studies have shown that proper vitamin B12 levels may improve cognitive function, cardiovascular health and energy levels.2,3
In essence, the body depends on vitamin B12 for all metabolic function.
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency
Without proper vitamin B12 levels, red blood cells will not reproduce properly, so their production will reduce, leading to anemia. Symptoms of anemia can include fatigue, shortness of breath, and an irregular heartbeat. Patients may also experience weight loss, pale skin and diarrhea.
Low levels of vitamin B12 can also affect proper neurological function. You may see symptoms such as depression, memory problems, confusion and fatigue.2,3 While these neurological symptoms alone may not be enough to pinpoint a vitamin B12 deficiency, a combination of neurological difficulty with anemia may well point to a deficiency.
Treatment of Vitamin B12 deficiency
Treatment for vitamin B12 deficiency should include a combination of supplementation and changes in diet to include more foods that contain adequate levels of vitamin B12. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that adults and teens over the age of 14 consume 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12 per day, which can be obtained through supplements.
Pregnant women should have 2.6 mcg, and those nursing infants should take in 2.8 mcg daily.2 Good food sources for vitamin B12 include meat, fish (particularly tuna), eggs, dairy, and fortified grain products.3 Milk, cheese, and yogurt are good options for your vegetarian patients who will consume dairy products.
Your vegan patients, however, should get most of their vitamin B12 from supplements, as fortified grain products alone will not provide recommended daily levels.
While it is true that eating mostly fruits and vegetables is a healthier way to eat, it is also vital to obtain enough of the vital nutrients that are usually only found from animal protein sources. Helping your vegetarian and vegan patients get enough vitamin B12 in their diet can allow them to optimize their diet for maximum benefit.
- Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017: Exploring trends in meat, fish and seafood; pasta, noodles and rice; prepared meals; savory deli food; soup; and meat substitutes. Accessed 11/22/2017.
- Vitamin B12. National Institutes of Health. Accessed 11/22/2017.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency: Causes, symptoms and treatments. Medical News Today. Accessed 11/22/2017.