Vitamin B12 for Vegetarians: Best Sources and Foods Explained

Are you concerned about not getting enough B12? Learn why this nutrient is important and which plant foods are highest in vitamin b12.

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by
Rebecca Washuta
— Signos
MS, CNS, LDN
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Reviewed by

Rebecca Washuta
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
February 29, 2024
January 25, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Although vitamin B12 was the last vitamin to be discovered, it is one of the most important nutrients required by our bodies. Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a role in critical functions like metabolism, energy production, DNA synthesis, and more.1

Dietary sources of vitamin B12 are primarily from animal products (beef, salmon, oysters, dairy, etc.), as plant foods naturally do not contain B12. This puts vegetarians and vegans at an increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency and can cause more serious health concerns. People who focus on plant-based diets need to pay extra attention to their vitamin B12 intake to ensure they are getting sufficient amounts of this vital nutrient. 

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Vitamin B12: Recommended Amount

The amount of vitamin B12 you should get varies based on things like age, gender, and other factors like whether someone is pregnant or breastfeeding. The Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA, is defined as the average daily level of intake necessary to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals.2 Below is a chart of the RDA for vitamin B12 that breaks down the specific micrograms different groups of people need.2

Age Male Female Pregnant Lactating
0-6 mo .4 mcg .4 mcg    
7-12 mo .5 mcg .5 mcg    
1-3 years .9 mcg .9 mcg    
4-8 years 1.2 mcg 1.2 mcg    
9-13 years 1.8 mcg 1.8 mcg    
14+ years 2.4 mcg 2.4 mcg 2.6 mcg 2.8 mcg

Vitamin B12: Health Benefits

Vitamin B12 has a wide array of functions in the body, and is most commonly known for its role in energy production. This essential nutrient is involved in a metabolic pathway called the Krebs cycle (or citric acid cycle). This process takes place inside our mitochondria (the powerhouses of our cells), and B12 is ultimately required to help our mitochondria function properly. 

This crucial vitamin is also involved in stabilizing our DNA, and insufficient amounts can actually cause DNA damage. B12 also has antioxidant properties and can help neutralize free radicals, protecting our DNA from damage.3

B12 works in conjunction with folate (another B vitamin) to metabolize a compound in our bodies called homocysteine. Elevated levels of homocysteine increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, and the powerful combination of B12 and folate can reduce homocysteine levels.4

Vitamin B12 plays an important role in our central nervous system, specifically protecting the myelin sheath around neurons and aiding in the synthesis of neurotransmitters.4 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="best-vegetarian-protein-options">9 Best Vegetarian Protein Options</a>.</p>

What Are the Risks and Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency?

Vitamin B12 deficiency is most likely to occur in vegans and vegetarians, as B12 is largely found in animal products. This is why it’s particularly important to work with your doctor to understand your B12 status if you’re following a plant-based diet. Deficiency can result in symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, poor coordination, more serious conditions, and neural tube defects in unborn babies. Below are some additional signs and symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency.1

  • Neurological problems
  • Clumsiness
  • Numbness or pain in extremities
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of sense of touch
  • Irritability and depression
  • Memory loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Dementia
  • Megaloblastic anemia

Megaloblastic anemia is a blood disorder that occurs when your body produces unusually large red blood cells. These cells don’t reproduce normally, and due to their large size, it’s difficult for them to move into your bloodstream. Without normal red blood cells, you have low levels of oxygen in your body, which can cause irreparable damage. Megaloblastic anemia is the direct result of vitamin b12 or folate deficiency.5

B12 Vitamin Sources Every Vegetarian Must Know

It’s absolutely possible to follow a vegetarian diet or vegan diet and get an adequate amount of vitamin B12, you just need to pay extra attention to what you’re eating. 

If you’re a vegetarian and are looking to increase your vitamin B12 levels, here are the top dietary sources:

  • Eggs
  • Tempeh
  • Fortified Cereals and Fortified Foods
  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Wild Mushrooms6
  • Algae
  • Dairy Products (milk, cottage cheese, swiss cheese, yogurt, etc.)

Vitamin B12 Supplements and What to Consider

vitamin-b12-supplements

If you’re concerned you're not getting sufficient B12 through your diet, supplements may be a good option. Talk to your doctor to find out if you’re getting enough vitamin B12 and see if supplements are right for you. Here are some things to consider before buying vitamin B12 supplements:

Get the Active Form

Avoid products that contain “cyanocobalamin” and opt for those that have “methylcobalamin”. The latter is the active form of vitamin B12 and has better bioavailability in the body.

There is no established UL or Tolerable Upper Intake Level for vitamin B12, as it’s considered to be safe and is not stored in the body. So no need to be alarmed if the % RDA indicated on the supplement label seems high. 

Buy From Reputable Sources

Ask your healthcare provider what supplement brands they recommend to ensure the highest quality. It’s important to only buy supplements from reputable brands that manufacture their products in GMP facilities and have third-party testing for purity. 

B12 also works in conjunction with other nutrients (like folate, for example), so multivitamins or a multi-B vitamin supplement will be more effective than vitamin B12 alone. 

Always consult your doctor before starting new supplements.

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

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<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="vegetarian-weight-loss-plan">A Vegetarian Weight Loss Plan: Food List and Meal Ideas</a>.</p>

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References

About the author

Rebecca Washuta is a licensed dietitian with degrees in neuroscience and nutrition and helped individuals develop long-term health habits and achieve various wellness goals.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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