B12: EATING Meat is Not the Answer

Most people believe they must eat meat to get their requirement of B12, but that's not true.  Fortified plant-based foods and B12 shots have better efficacy and are better for the environment and animal welfare.

Most people believe they must eat meat to get their requirement of B12, but that's not true. Fortified plant-based foods and B12 shots have better efficacy and are better for the environment and animal welfare.

Vitamin B12 is not made by plants or animals, it's made by microorganisms (bacteria). It used to be that we could get B12 from our drinking water, but since our water supply is now treated and chlorinated to kill bacteria, it no longer supplies this important nutrient.

Vegans are regularly advised to supplement with B12, but vegetarians and meat eaters often fall short on this important nutrient, which helps keep nerves and blood cells healthy.

Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria, not animals or plants. Animals, including humans, must obtain it directly or indirectly from bacteria. It can be found in bacteria-laden manure and chemically untreated (or contaminated) water. Many animal foods contain high amounts of B12 because the animals accumulate the bacteria over the course of their lifetime being exposed to manure in their living environments, some being fed manure. Cows, for example, are sometimes fed poultry waste.

Supplementing with B12 is essential, and critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet, as well as elders and those who take certain medications including hormone replacement therapy (HRT), Metformin, and antacids, specifically PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) and H2 (histamine-2 receptor) blockers—think Prilosec®, Prevacid®, Tagamet®, Zantac®, Pepcid®, etc. It's also important for anyone with compromised gut function, intestinal inflammation, or lack of intrinsic factors. However, many people, no matter their age or diet, have “unexplained low vitamin B12 levels,” which researchers attribute to “food cobalamin malabsorption,” meaning the B12 that’s naturally present in foods is simply not absorbed.

The absorption process from oral ingestion is quite complex, requiring several physiologic elements to take place for it to occur adequately, and many factors can contribute to deficiencies. In addition to long-term use of antacids and other medications, factors like H. pylori infection, alcohol abuse, smoking, atrophic gastritis, and conditions that slow the movement of food through the GI tract (like diabetes, scleroderma, strictures, diverticula) are all associated with vitamin B12 deficiency.

Common symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency are fairly non-specific and can include fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, and loss of appetite. Shortness of breath, numbness, and memory problems can also occur.

The wide-ranging and imprecise nature of these symptoms underscores the importance of being proactive in avoiding a vitamin B12 deficiency.

It can take several years for symptoms of B12 deficiency to develop, but when they do, they can be devastating. It can lead to paralysis, psychosis, blindness, and even death. Newborns of mothers eating a plant-based diet who fail to supplement are at higher risk of developing deficiency much more rapidly with critical results.

Fortified foods—soy milk, almond milk, some cereals—may provide enough vitamin B12 if eaten daily. These foods are fortified with a crystalline form of vitamin B12, which is preferable to the protein-bound form present in animal foods—it’s free, not bound, for easier absorption.

Deficiency is typically due to poor absorption, not poor intake. As we age, our ability to absorb B12 declines. Plus, in order to get the B12 you need from foods, you’d need to eat three servings daily that provide no less than 25-percent of the Daily Value (found on the Nutrition Facts label), having each serving at least four to six hours after the last. 

Most people believe they must eat meat to get their requirement of B12, but that's not true. Even if you ate meat three times daily with four to six hours between servings, you'd be doing more harm than good considering the ill effects meat has on the body, not to mention the detrimental effects its consumption has on the environment and animal welfare. The reasons cows have B12 in their meat is because of what they eat (dirty, buggy forages; manure), what they drink (dirty water), where they live (manure-laden conditions), and how their intestinal tract works. Gut bacteria in the large intestine of both cows and humans make B12; however, cows can absorb it through the large intestine whereas humans can’t—our guts have not evolved for necessary B12 absorption.

While animal foods contain high amounts of protein-bound vitamin B12, they’re not an ideal source for B12 for two main reasons:

First, the protein-bound B12 in animal foods can be difficult to absorb. The free, or un-bound, crystalline form found in fortified plant foods is preferred because it’s more easily absorbed.

Second, animal foods are not the best source because consuming them increases our levels of IGF-1 (a hormone consistently associated with increased cancer risk and tumor growth), TMAO (a substance that injures the lining of our blood vessels and promotes the formation of cholesterol plaques), as well as other unhealthy substances like heme iron, which is associated with oxidative stress and the formation of free radicals.

Because the absorption rate of B12 is questionable, the best way for humans to get the amount of B12 necessary to thrive is by getting regular intramuscular B12 injections.

A B12 shot bypasses the intestinal tract and is completely absorbed through our muscle tissue. Most of the vitamin will be utilized over the days to follow; if there’s an overabundance, it will get stored in the liver for future use, and when the stores are at full capacity, any excess B12 will be excreted in the urine. Everybody’s body is different. The rate your body utilizes B12 depends on your lifestyle and diet. If you smoke or drink alcohol, for instance, you’ll power through a B12 shot much faster than someone who doesn’t. 

An oral vitamin supplement has to be broken down by the process of digestion in the intestines. All that "breaking down" doesn't leave much to absorb. And, if there’s any inflammation at the site of absorption, or a lack of intrinsic factors, it may not get through at all and will flow straight to the kidneys for excretion, turning your urine bright yellow.

Avoiding a vitamin B12 deficiency is easy and relatively inexpensive, especially when you consider the poor quality of life caused from the symptoms and the cost of treatment.

Whether you like getting a B12 shot weekly to keep a steady stream in the body and enjoy the benefits it provides, or prefer getting a monthly shot, it’s important to get regular injections of B12 … for health’s sake.