Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that we have to get from foods or supplements because our bodies cannot make it. While vitamin B12 is in many foods, certain populations are at higher risk of deficiency.
Those at risk include vegetarians, vegans, pregnant people, those breastfeeding, and the elderly due to not getting enough through the foods they eat or having a higher need. Deficiency can present from mild symptoms to severe neurological or hematological abnormalities.
The recommendation for vitamin B12 consumption is 2.4 micrograms per day. Needs are higher for pregnant and lactating women, at 2.6 micrograms and 2.8 micrograms, respectively. Vitamin B12 is primarily found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
It is also found in fortified breakfast cereals and nutritional yeasts. In the United States, the prevalence of deficiency varies by age, impacting 3% of those 20 to 39 years old, 4% of those 40 to 59 years old, and 6% of those 60 years and older. Vitamin B12 is simple to supplement if you are not getting enough through food.
Importance of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is essential for preventing many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. It also plays a role in mental health as well as birth outcomes.
Helps Produce Red Blood Cells
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in producing red blood cells and preventing anemia. Deficiency may cause slower red blood cell formation as well as preventing them from developing properly.
This deficiency can result in anemia. When your body does not have enough red blood cells to transport adequate amounts of oxygen to your organs it can leave you feeling very weak and fatigued.
May Support Bone Health
Studies show a link between low levels of vitamin B12 and low bone mineral density, which increases the risk for osteoporosis. In a study with more than 2,500 participants, men and women with low levels of vitamin B12 also had lower than average bone mineral density. Vitamin B12 may be a vital nutrient in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Helps Promote Brain Health
Vitamin B12 deficiency is commonly seen in older adults who suffer from memory loss or dementia. One study showed the effectiveness of supplementing with vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids at slowing mental decline in individuals with early-stage dementia.
Improves Mood and Energy Levels
Vitamin B12 plays a role in producing and metabolizing serotonin, an important hormone for regulating mood. Deficiency in vitamin B12 may cause decreased serotonin production, resulting in a depressed mood.
In a study with 200 participants, those who were treated with anti-depressants and vitamin B12 supplements had significantly improved depressive symptoms than those treated with anti-depressants alone. Ensuring adequate intake of foods high in B12 or supplementing with vitamin B12 may help improve mood in those with depression.
May Prevent Birth Defects
Adequate vitamin B12 levels are important to ensure a healthy pregnancy as the fetus’s brain and nervous system rely on B12 to form properly. Studies show that vitamin B12 deficiency early in pregnancy may increase the risk for neural tube defects in babies. Additionally, low vitamin B12 also may contribute to a miscarriage or premature birth.
Foods High in Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found in many foods. Eating a variety of these types of foods can prevent a deficiency.
A variety of seafood such as clams, sardines, salmon, trout, and tuna are excellent sources of vitamin B12. One serving of these fish (3.5 ounce filet of salmon, trout, tuna, 1 cup of sardines, or 20 small clams) offer over 100% of your daily value of vitamin B12.
Three ounces of beef provides 100% of your daily value for vitamin B12. There are higher concentrations of vitamin B12 in lower-fat cuts of meat. Additionally, grilling or roasting the meat instead of frying helps preserve the vitamin B12 content in the meat.
Although organ meats are some of the less popular animal protein choices in the U.S, meats such as liver and kidney are an extremely rich source of vitamin B12. A 3.5 ounce serving of lamb liver provides over 3,000% of the daily value for vitamin B12 while beef and veal liver contains close to the same amount. Lamb, veal, and beef kidneys also provide over 100% of the daily value for vitamin B12.
If you are vegetarian or vegan and are thinking you may not be getting vitamin B12 through food, there are ways to eat adequate amounts in a carefully planned meal plan. Cereals are frequently fortified—meaning nutrients not originally found in the food are added, with vitamin B12. Studies show that consuming fortified cereals is an effective method of increasing vitamin B12 levels.
Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese are good sources of many important vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12. One cup of whole milk provides 46% of the daily value for vitamin B12 and one slice of Swiss cheese contains 28% of the daily value. Research shows higher rates of absorption of vitamin B12 from dairy sources than meat, fish, or eggs.
Fortified Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is a species of yeast that is not meant to be used as a leavening agent for bread, rather it is fortified with vitamin B12 and is also a good vegan source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Two tablespoons of nutritional yeast contains 733% of the daily value for vitamin B12. Nutritional yeast has a uniquely cheesy flavor and can be used as a vegan substitute sprinkled on pasta, popcorn, or mixed into sauces.
Eggs are an excellent source of protein as well as vitamins D, B2, and B12. Two large eggs contain about 46% of the daily value for vitamin B12.
It is recommended to eat the whole egg, not just the white, as research shows egg yolks have higher concentrations of vitamin B12. Plus, the B12 in the yolk is easier for the body to absorb.
When to Supplement Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 supplements are recommended if you are at risk of developing a deficiency. Those at a higher risk include vegetarians and vegans, pregnant or breastfeeding people, older adults, certain individuals with gastrointestinal problems, and people who have had abdominal surgery.
B12 supplements are found in many forms. They can be taken in pill form that you swallow or chew. Or you can drink them or place them under your tongue. Your doctor may also advise you to receive injections of vitamin B12. The source of vitamin B12 in supplements is vegan so it is suitable for any diet.
Not all vitamin B12 deficiencies are caused by inadequate nutritional intake alone, so it is important to talk with your healthcare provider to find the root of the deficiency. If you are concerned about your dietary intake or would like to learn more about supplementation, always speak to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.
A Word From Verywell
Vitamin B12 is a critical nutrient for many of the body’s essential functions. Its role includes helping in the production of red blood cells, supporting bone health, preventing neuron loss and brain atrophy, improving mood, and preventing risk of birth defects. Vitamin B12 is found in many foods including beef, eggs, dairy products, organ meats, seafood, fortified cereal, and nutritional yeast.
While vitamin B12 deficiency is not very common, populations at risk include pregnant or breastfeeding people, vegans, vegetarians, older adults, and those who have had abdominal surgery. It is important to have your levels checked and speak with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to see if supplementation is necessary.