Vegans are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency
experts recommend supplementation to prevent nerve damage
Plant-based eating plans, like the vegan diet, are usually very healthy. They can lower your cholesterol intake, boost your heart health, or even promote weight loss.
But health experts warn that those on a vegan diet may suffer from a vitamin B12 deficiency that may cause “permanent numbness in their hands and feet.”
Going vegan and vitamin B12 deficiency
Non-vegans usually get their vitamin B12 from milk, but according to health experts, plant-based substitutes don’t contain enough of the vitamin to protect adults and children from peripheral neuropathy, an irreversible health condition.
According to Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, young dieters going vegan are at greater risk of developing peripheral neuropathy if they don’t start taking vitamin B12 supplements.
Sanders added that vegans can also boost their vitamin B12 intake by consuming more plant-based milk. He also urged plant-based milk manufacturers to increase the nutrient content of their products, and that vitamin B12 “[l]evels should be higher in plant milks than they are at the moment.”
If manufacturers produced plant-based milk with thrice the vitamin B12 content, it may be easier to prevent peripheral neuropathy among vegans.
What is peripheral neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when nerves in your extremities, like your hands, feet and arms, are damaged. Symptoms often vary depending on which nerves are affected.
Your peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that are found outside your central nervous system, which is made up of your brain and spinal cord.
The peripheral nervous system includes different types of nerves with their own specific functions, like:
- Autonomic nerves that regulate automatic functions of the body like blood pressure and bladder function.
- Motor nerves that control your muscles.
- Sensory nerves that transmit sensations, like pain and touch.
The main symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may include:
- Loss of balance and coordination.
- Numbness and tingling in the hands or feet.
- Feeling burning, stabbing, or shooting pain in affected body parts.
- Muscle weakness, especially in your feet.
These symptoms tend to be constant, but they can also come and go.
The most common causes of peripheral neuropathy in the U.S. are:
- Certain cancers and benign tumors
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Hormonal imbalances
- Kidney and liver disorders
- Nutritional or vitamin imbalances, alcoholism and exposure to toxins
- Trauma or physical injury
- Vascular and blood problems
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vegans need extra B12
Sanders also warned that any internet claims about vegans not needing vitamin B12 supplementation were not evidence-based. Even those who practice Jainism in India, a religion where followers eat a vegan diet, “receive vitamin 12 injections,” explained Sanders.
Research suggests that vitamin B12 levels in vegans are only a third of what is needed. While other aspects of the vegan diet are healthy, Sanders emphasized that dieters should also pay attention to their vitamin B12 intake.
Vitamin deficiency is also a concern among the children of those on a vegan diet. According to one case, a baby breastfed by a mother who was B12 deficient developed peripheral neuropathy.
Sanders and Tim Key, a professor of epidemiology and deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, have both participated in research about long-term vegans. And while Key himself is a vegan, he shared that he takes vitamin B12 tablets regularly.
Key added that there was limited data available on vegans and their vitamin intake. In the Epic study based at Oxford, researchers worked with only about 2,000 participants.
A similar study in California gleaned data from about 10,000 volunteers, but Key advised that even this isn’t enough to accurately estimate the long-term health of vegans. Findings have also shown that vegans “tend not to be overweight – if anything, some are very thin and may have problems in older age when weight loss becomes an issue.”
On the plus side, vegans have low rates of Type 2 diabetes and diverticular disease of the colon. Additionally, going on a vegan diet can help lower your cholesterol levels. Vegans also have lower heart disease and cancer risk.
Unfortunately, vegans have a 30 percent higher risk of bone fracture because of their lower bone density. Key suggested that this might be linked to the lower calcium and vitamin B12 intake of vegans, who may also have higher rates of hemorrhagic stroke.
And while going vegan means eating more fruits and vegetables, Key advised dieters to monitor their choice of snack foods. After all, even if you’re vegan, you can still put on the pounds if you eat a lot of junk food like cakes, cookies and chips. Key also advised against eating some meat substitutes, like vegan sausages, that are high in salt.
Going vegan: What to eat and what to avoid
Some people go vegan for religious reasons while others refrain from eating meat to avoid all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. If you’re curious about going vegan, here are some lists that will help you remember which foods to eat and what to avoid.
There are several kinds of vegans, such as:
- Dietary vegans or “plant-based eaters” who avoid animal products in their diet but continue to use them in other products, like clothing and cosmetics.
- Whole-food vegans or those who follow a diet full of “whole foods” or unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Raw-food vegans only eat only foods that are raw or cooked at temperatures below 118 F (48 C).
- Low-fat, raw-food vegans or fruitarians limit high-fat foods, like avocados, coconuts and nuts. Fruitarians mostly eat fruit, but they also eat other plants occasionally and in small amounts.
Foods vegans avoid
Vegans avoid all foods that come from animals, like:
Vegans also avoid animal-derived ingredients like:
Foods that containing these ingredients include certain types of beer and wine. Breakfast cereals, chewing gum, gummy candies and marshmallows also contain animal-derived additives.
Foods vegans can eat
If you’re worried that going vegan means you’re significantly limiting your food choices, you can relax. Even if you can’t eat animal products, you can eat other foods besides fruits, vegetables and tofu.
Additionally, you can still enjoy your favorite snacks, like pizza and burgers, but with a vegan twist! Most dishes that include meat or animal-derived can be made vegan.
Instead of eating fast food, you can snack on healthier alternatives like:
- Bean burritos
- Hummus wraps
- Nachos with salsa and guacamole
- Pasta dishes
- Tomato pizzas
- Veggie burgers
- Veggie sandwiches
For meat-based entrees, use the following superfoods in place of meat or poultry:
Replace dairy products with plant milk and eggs with tofu. If you have a sweet tooth, replace honey with plant-based sweeteners like molasses or maple syrup. Even raw eggs can be replaced with flax or chia seeds!
Aside from fruits and veggies, vegans can eat different kinds of whole grains. When buying ready-made vegan products like desserts, vegan meats, fortified plant milk and vegan cheeses, avoid highly processed products that contain additives, oils and artificial ingredients that are bad for you.
Before going vegan, keep in mind that you need vitamin B12 supplements so you get all the nutrients your body needs. Taking supplements will also help prevent health problems like peripheral neuropathy.
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(Source: food.news; April 15, 2021; https://tinyurl.com/uscpf4bj)