Melissa Meier is an online and Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can connect with her at www.honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.

I’m dubbing 2019 the year of the plant-based diet. And for countless reasons, that’s a very good thing (think: reduced risk of obesity, heart disease and cancer). But there are some key nutrients that need to be considered when cutting down your intake of animal foods – vitamin B12 being one of them. So, here’s what you need to know.

What does Vitamin B12 do?

Vitamin B12, or ‘cobalamin’ has many crucial roles. It works to maintain nerve cells, keep your brain healthy and is also involved in energy production. It is key in red blood cell formation, blood function and the creation of DNA, too. Plus, it prevents a serious type of anaemia called ‘megoblastic anaemia’.

How much do you need?

From the age of 14, you need 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 a day. If you’re pregnant, that bumps up to 2.6 micrograms, and if you’re breastfeeding, it’s slightly more at 2.8 micrograms per day.

To give you some perspective, here’s a number crunch:

  • One cup (250mLs) of cow’s milk contains 1.6 micrograms of Vitamin B12
  • One 170-gram tub of Greek yoghurt contains 0.3 micrograms of Vitamin B12
  • Two eggs contain 1.2 micrograms of Vitamin B12
  • 100 grams of cooked white fish contains 1.9 micrograms of Vitamin B12
  • 100 grams of cooked chicken breast contains 0.5 micrograms of Vitamin B12

So, as you can see, it’s relatively easy to get enough of this all-important nutrient.

Generally speaking, animal foods (read: meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs) are the only foods that naturally contain Vitamin B12. With veganism rapidly taking off, however, there are more and more plant-based products popping up on supermarket shelves that have Vitamin B12 added during manufacturing. These include reduced-salt Vegemite, faux vegan ‘meats’, and some plant-based milks like almond or soy – but there is variation between brands, so it’s important to always check the label.

What happens if you don’t get Vitamin B12?

There are serious consequences of Vitamin B12 deficiency. What you mightn’t realise, however, is that your liver stores of Vitamin B12 can last up to five years, so it takes a long time for deficiency to occur. What’s more, the cause of deficiency is usually malabsorption rather than inadequate dietary intake.

Nonetheless, Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in tiredness, reduced energy levels and gut symptoms. The more severe outcomes of Vitamin B12 deficiency are vision loss, memory loss and even heart palpitations.

The people who have the highest risk of this serious deficiency are the elderly, those who follow a vegan diet and breast-fed babies of vegan mothers (without enough Vitamin B12 in their mother’s breast milk, babies are at risk of impaired development).

Bottom line: Should you take a Vitamin B12 supplement?

As a dietitian, I’m a big believer in real food, first – but that’s not to say that supplements are never necessary. If you’re following a strict vegan diet, chances are you need a Vitamin B12 boost. So, have a chat to your doctor to find the right supplement for you, and make sure they’re on board with checking your Vitamin B12 status regularly.