My personal position is that B12 deficiency is not a special issue for vegans, though it may be an issue for people as a whole (including but vegans but in no way exclusively).
The whole issue of vegans being supposedly doomed to vitamin B12 deficiency, in my opinion, has more importance than meets the eye.
On the surface, it just means that vegans need to take pills – or so you’d think. For me, however, the presupposition behind the idea of B12 deficiency as a vegan issue is that meat eating is natural and veganism is unnatural.
This message is not a happy one for veganism. Even if they accept the extra effort and expense of taking B12 supplements, a believer in vegan B12 deficiency is likely to feel more stressed about percieved “dangers” in the diet. More likely, these beliefs will keep you from ever becoming vegan.
Veganism Is Natural
The fact is the vegan diet isn’t dangerous, because it is natural. Our body – while it can digest meat and so on – is made to be able to do without it. If you observe our closest primate cousins, meat is a negligable part of their diet – often consumed for ritualistic reasons or in times of starvation only. Our closest cousins, the bonobos, who walk on their hind legs 50% of the time and are among the very few animals in the world to share the human obsession for sex, are about 99% vegan. At this level, we can assume that some bonobos could go long stretches, maybe even their whole lives without consuming meat. We can also admit that their B12 consumption, as viewed by the modern orthodoxy, is very low.
Bulls and gorillas get very little protein and are bigger and stronger than humans. In the same way, thousands of totally herbivorous species consume, according to modern science, “no” vitamin B12, without ever suffering from a B12 deficiency. Why would nature be so negligent as to leave us without that ability? In fact, seeing as all evidence points in the direction of us being built as herbivores primarily, it’s absurd to think it did.
The B12 Deficiency Myth
It’s more like human design, than nature, that has an investment in keeping us dependent on such a resource-intensive and addictive product as animal meat. This is why it seems a wonderfully good ruse to some humans to create scare stories about the B12 deficiency waiting in store for vegans.
Their stories are varied and inconsistent, but generally suggest that at X point of time as an unsupplemented vegan, your body’s B12 stores will run out and you will suffer from horrible nerve damage and later, presumably, death.
“X” varies, because when someone disproves one “X”, a new figure needs to be invented that puts off vitamin B12 deficiency a little further into the future. The most sensible figure is for 4 years, which is the length of time science believes the body’s B12 stores would last if they weren’t replenished. However, some people have given me figures of 10 or more years. I don’t know what they have to say about Douglas Graham, who has been an unsupplemented raw vegan for 33 years as of 2011. Or Leonardo Da Vinci, who was probably a vegan for most of his life and lived till the respectable age of 67. He didn’t die of B12 deficiency, either. I wonder if there would be anyone who would step up and suggest that if only he lived till 75, he would have gotten B12 deficiency.
Addition: After rewriting this article I found a much better example. Donald Watson, the inventor of the term “vegan” and one of the founders of the Vegan Society, was vegan for more than 70 years before his death at 95. Almost to prove it to the world, he was in perfect health every year of his life till the end. He never took a B12 supplement.
B12 Deficiency Irreversible?
To make the B12 deficiency bogeyman that much more scary, it’s often suggested that some of the consequences of B12 deficiency are irreversible by the time symptoms come up, which I’m pretty sure is a lie.
The exact case of the matter is that B12 deficiency can cause irreversible damage if left long enough, but in the case of an aware vegan who just wants to try a – pretty safe – experiment, the diagnosis and treatment could be very fast if something somehow did go wrong. Alas, the bogeyman of irreversible damage caused by B12 deficiency is used to scare people away from making such experiments.
Don’t fall for people who strive to suggest that veganism is dangerous or unnatural. Like any dietary change, the effects it has on individuals can sometimes be unpredictable, for which reason I advise a certain amount of caution and some trial-and-error if necessary. Any slight chance of problems veganism could possibly have, though, I strongly believe would not result in permanent damage. The worst that could happen is that you fail to stay vegan. How scary.
And what’s the best that could happen? Now that’s a question I’d like people to ask themselves.
Veganism? What’s the best that could happen?
B12 Deficiency As A General Issue
While veganism isn’t a cause of B12 deficiency, I would like to mention that B12 deficiency is a common issue for people as a whole.
Many a diagnosis of “vegan” B12 deficiency was actually an issue of normal B12 deficiency. Statistics suggest that as much as 40% of people in the USA are B12 deficient. The percentage among vegans is about the same; possibly slightly more, but not radically more if it is. I don’t know what proportion of vegans supplement B12 but I think it’s only about half or so.
If you’re worried about B12 deficiency, you can get tested, and supplements may be of help.
A discussion of the causes of the modern epidemic of B12 deficiency is too much for this article, though my pet theory is that the abuses we put our body through reduce our ability to absorb it. (More on this in the articles I’ll link to in a moment).
But let’s get this straight. B12 deficiency will never be caused by veganism. It’s a sickness that many people experience. Veganism may or may not have some effect on it. Not much effect, or not frequently an effect, in any case. I’m inclined to think it could even be a positive effect.
As I said, while veganism may effect B12 deficiency, it will never be the primary cause of B12 deficiency.
B12 Deficiency References
This is a right-brained sort of article. I’m not very fond of doing nitty-gritty scientific research. I’ve enjoyed stating my intuitive and common-sense reasons for not believing in the vegan B12 deficiency myth in this article.
If you want some more scientifically hard evidence, though, I’m going to present you with some hard-hitting articles which have helped to shape my opinion on this matter.
First is the article on B12 deficiency by Andrew Perlot. It’s a very complete article, and includes among other things the case study of the author himself; 4 years into an unsupplemented vegan diet, and a fine blood profile for vitamin B12.
Now here’s an article on B12 deficiency written by the Natural Hygeinist Gina Shaw. And another by Virginia Vetrano. I particularly like the experiement where most of a group of 100 people were cured from B12 deficiency by a fast. According to the standard position on B12 deficiency, none of the vitamin was consumed by the patients at that time. So how, then, did their blood levels of B12 not only go up, but return to normal?
Finally, I’d like to add this article on B12 deficiency by Virginia Vetrano. She has actually written several articles on the site I’ve linked to, which can be found at the index of links at the bottom of the article. This one I particularly like, because, with delicious indignation, she takes apart the scientific study which has been used to “prove” that vegans have a problem with B12 deficiency. The truth of the matter is that only through out-of-context quoting has that conclusion been made from the study, and the actual substance of the findings is that vegans don’t have issues with B12 deficiency. Can you believe it?
If you need any more convincing, here are two more articles:
- An interview with Douglas Graham where he talks about how to deal with B12 deficiency
- LivingFoods.com’s article on B12 deficiency
Anyway, I hope this article was of use to you. As always, use your head and be careful where care is warranted. That said, take a moment to feel liberated of fears too. Veganism is not a minefield of dangers at all. Not B12 deficiency, not protein defiency, nothing else, nothing. While everyone does respond differently to changes in diet, the bottom line is that veganism is natural and basically good for you.