What is Vitamin B12 & Why Do You Need It?

What is Vitamin B12 & Why Do You Need It?

Assortment of healthy vitamin B12, cobalamin source food on a designed background

Assortment of healthy vitamin B12, cobalamin source food on a designed background

Adobe Stock / aamulya

Like most nutrients, vitamin B12 is something that many of us eat every day but don’t fully understand. Whether or not your B12 consumption is front-of-mind, our bodies need it for a variety of reasons. While most people get enough each day by eating fish, meat and dairy products, those who are vegan or vegetarian might worry about whether they are getting enough vitamin B12, and how to choose a supplement that is safe. To help you better understand this important nutrient, we dove into the research on what vitamin B12 is, why we need it and how you can make sure you are meeting your needs.

What Is Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in foods we eat. It contains the mineral cobalt, so it can be grouped with the “cobalamins” compounds. Vitamin B12 is used for several functions including developing our central nervous system, forming our red blood cells and synthesizing our DNA. Since vitamin B12 is water soluble, our body flushes out any excess that we can’t use, so it’s unlikely that you’ll consume too much of it.

The biggest misconception about vitamin B12 is that people think it gives you energy. Spoiler alert: only calories can give you energy, and nutrients like vitamin B12 contain very, very few calories. So rather than fall victim to branding on drinks, snacks or supplements, instead go for naturally energizing foods, like whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and more.

Vitamin B12 deficiency

Though it’s unlikely that someone could have too much vitamin B12, it’s very possible that some people might not be getting enough. Vitamin B12 deficiency can be caused by several reasons, as well. Since vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal products, people following a vegan or vegetarian diet can be at risk for deficiency. There are vegan food sources of vitamin B12, most of which have been fortified with the nutrient.

Another reason someone might be deficient in vitamin B12 could be the inability to adequately absorb it. This type of vitamin B12 deficiency is known as pernicious anemia. Vitamin B12 is absorbed in the large intestine, so malabsorption could be the result of long term medication use, age or genetics.

Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include fatigue, heart palpitations, pale skin, dementia, weight loss and infertility.

Foods High in Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is bound to the protein in foods, so it is typically found in high-protein animal products. The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of vitamin B12 for an adult is 2.4 micrograms for men and women over the age of 19. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, the recommendation goes up to 2.6 and 2.8 micrograms respectively. These are foods high in vitamin B12:

  • Clams: 17mcg per 3oz (708% RDA)

  • Tuna: 9.3mcg per 3oz (385% RDA)

  • Nutritional yeast: 8.3mcg per ¼ cup (346% RDA)

  • Salmon: 2.6mcg per 3oz (108% RDA)

  • Ground Beef: 2.4mcg per 3 ounces (100% RDA)

  • Milk: 1.3mcg per cup (54% RDA)

  • Yogurt: 1mcg per 6oz (43% RDA)

  • Fortified breakfast cereals: 0.6mcg per serving (25% RDA)

  • Cheese: 0.5mcg per ounce (19% RDA)

Vitamin B12 for Vegans

While most sources of vitamin B12 are from animal foods, there are still a few sources that are vegan-friendly. Nutritional yeast packs an impressive amount of vitamin B12 at 8.3 micrograms per ¼ cup. Plus, a ¼ cup serving also boasts 8 grams of fiber and 16 grams of protein for some serious staying power. Nutritional yeast can be added on top of salads, popcorn, grain bowls and more for flavor and nutrition.

Fortified breakfast cereals are another way vegans can add vitamin B12 into their diet. Be sure to check the nutrition label to see if your cereal is fortified and how much vitamin B12 it contains per serving.

Another popular option for those following a vegan diet is vitamin B12 supplementation. Check with your doctor to see if a supplement is right for you.

Health Benefits of Vitamin B12

Our bodies need vitamin B12 for several reasons, and it is crucial for keeping us functioning at our best. Here are some of the health benefits of getting enough vitamin B12.

Reduced Cancer Risk

Getting enough vitamin B12 can help reduce your risk for certain types of cancers. One study in the International Journal of Cancer found that those with low vitamin B12 intakes had increased risk for gastric cancer, especially if they smoked. Another study in Public Health Nutrition found a dose-response relationship between vitamin B12 and colorectal cancer. This means that in general, the higher vitamin B12 intake people had, the lower their risk of colorectal cancer. Studies have also found similar findings related to pancreatic cancer.

Improved Cognitive Function

One of vitamin B12’s main functions is to help the cells in our central nervous system develop correctly. When we don’t get enough vitamin B12, it can lead to poor cognitive outcomes. Studies have found that low levels of vitamin B12 can negatively impact our brain and central nervous system health. On the other hand, getting enough vitamin B12 can help keep your cells healthy and slash your risk of cognitive decline.

Healthy Energy Metabolism

Though vitamin B12 doesn’t give us energy directly, as it doesn’t contain calories, it can still play an important role in energy metabolism. All eight of the essential B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12) are involved in the chemical reactions that allow us to digest food and convert it to usable energy for our cells. They don’t directly give you energy like calorie-containing foods (carbs, proteins, fats and alcohol) and they aren’t stimulants like caffeine. However, they are still necessary for converting food into energy for our cells.

Bottom Line

Even if you haven’t thought about it before, vitamin B12 is crucial for a variety of bodily functions. From keeping your brain healthy to helping you metabolize energy, we use vitamin B12 every day. It typically comes from animal sources, but vegans and vegetarians can also meet their needs through food with a little know-how. For more on important nutrients, check out the top five vitamins and minerals to help support healthy immunity.

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