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Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that most people get enough of when they eat animal-based foods like meat, dairy, and eggs. But if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian who goes light on the lacto-ovo, you might be B12 deficient.
Why does vitamin B12 matter?
Your body needs B12 for DNA health, making red blood cells, and neurological function. Too little B12 and you’re at risk of developing pernicious anemia (more on that in a second).
You can stick to your veg diet and get enough B12 if you know what to munch on. Here are the best vegetarian sources of vitamin B12.
These are the B12 MVPs if you’re a vegetarian:
- shitake mushrooms
- fortified foods
- nutritional yeast
Vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products can get enough B12 from those animal-based foods.
Vegans, on the other hand, will have to lean on plant-based foods like:
- fermented foods
The deets on what to eat.
Hit the sushi bar, friend
Those dark green sheets of nori wrapped around your sushi rolls are a good source of vitamin B12. Nori is made from dried seaweed (aka red algae). It’s a popular ingredient in Japanese food, and tastes like the ocean itself.
Besides using it to hold your sushi together, you can eat the crunchy sheets as a snack, or chop it up to add Japanese flair to rice, salad, and soup.
Holy shitake, vegman!
Research shows some mushrooms (shitake, black trumpet, golden chanterelles, Lion’s mane) contain B12.
This study estimates you would have to eat 50 grams of shitake mushrooms to get your daily dose of B12. If that sounds like quite a mouthful, remember you don’t have to get all your B12 from one food.
Eat as many or as few mushrooms as you care to and make up the balance from other sources listed here.
Cereal box hero
Many breakfast cereals are “fortified,” meaning they have nutrients like vitamin B12 added. If you’re a cereal fan, check your favorite box’s nutrition label to know how much of the recommended daily allowance of B12 you can get from one serving.
If you happen to eat your cereal with cow’s milk, there will be even more B12 in your breakfast.
Other fortified options
Some companies that produce alternative milks and faux meat products add B12. Check the label of your favorite plant milks and plant-based “meats” for their vitamin B12 content.
Nutritional yeast: Flavor making, not bread making
Nutritional yeast is one of those magical ingredients you can add to food for a nutrition and flavor boost. Some say it tastes cheesy, but it’s totally veg-friendly.
B12 and other B vitamins are usually added, making it a great way to meet your daily needs.
Sprinkle on popcorn and chips, or add a scoop to sauces and vegetarian stews.
Dig into dairy, if that’s your jam
Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese naturally contain B12 — and lots of it. If you drink a cup of milk and eat 8 ounces of yogurt, you’re pretty much set for a day.
Any ol’ cheese will have some B12, but Swiss is the superstar with 27 percent of your daily needs in one slice. Also, try feta and Brie because yum.
The incredible edible egg
One large boiled egg will get you 1/4 of the way to your daily B12 needs. So, should you eat 4 boiled eggs and smash that goal? There’s no shame in your egg game.
If you’re trying to get more protein in your diet (some vegetarians find it a challenge), eggs are a decent way to do that too.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and contains some variable level of vitamin B12. The same is true of other traditionally-made fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles.
It’s tricky to get more B12 in your diet from these foods though. Commercial processes usually kill the bacteria that produces B12.
If you’re into DIY fermentation though, you could sneak in some extra vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is literally an essential nutrient. It’s a big deal for bodily functions like:
- synthesizing DNA
- protecting nerve cells
- creating red blood cells
- metabolizing nutrients for energy
How much is enough?
- The recommended daily allowance is 2.4 mcg for people over the age of 14.
- Pregnant women need 2.6 mcg and breastfeeding women need 2.8 mcg per day.
- If you’re feeding a vegetarian kid, watch their B12 consumption, too. Recommended daily intake is 0.5 mcg for children 7–12 months old, 0.9 mcg for 1- to 3-year-olds, 1.2 mcg for children between 4–8 years old, and 1.8 mcg for kids between 9–13 years old.
Remember B12’s super important job of helping you make red blood cells? Without it, you face pernicious anemia.
The main sign of pernicious anemia is fatigue because you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen throughout the body.
Other complications of B12 deficiency are neurological disorders and poor cell division.
Here are symptoms to watch for:
- shortness of breath
- cold or tingling hands and feet
- pale or yellowish skin
- chest pain
- trouble walking
- blurry vision
- excessive sweating
- sore tongue
- digestive problems
A 2013 review of research summarized the prevalence of B12 deficiency among vegetarians:
- 62% of pregnant vegetarians were deficient
- 25–86% of children with vegetarian diets were deficient
- 21–41% of adolescent vegetarians were deficient
- 11–90% of older adult vegetarians were deficient
Check in with a doctor and have them request blood work and assess you for vitamin B12 deficiency. It’s totally treatable, and long-term complications are less likely if you’re treated early.
Because the highest levels of vitamin B12 are found in meat and animal-based foods, vegetarians and vegans need to be aware of plant-based sources.
Dairy and eggs are a good option for vegetarians who eat those foods, but it’s also possible to get enough B12 from foods like seaweed, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, and fortified cereals.
While B12 deficiency can have serious health consequences, it’s easy to identify and treat. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, remind your doctor to keep an eye on your B12 levels.