So important for vegetarian teens...so little time in the spotlight!
By: Rachel; research by Denise Ulloa
As we like to say here at The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, protein is like the most popular girl in school—it gets a whole lot of attention it probably doesn’t deserve. While the first question 99.9% of people ask someone when they find out they’re a vegetarian is “how do you get enough protein?,” that nutrient is generally not hard for non-meat eaters to consume enough of. There are, however a number of under-the-radar nutrients that full-time (and even part-time) teen vegetarians may have trouble keeping up with.
One of these way more important and interesting than they let on nutrients is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is important for metabolism (the chemical processes that keep you alive), forming red blood cells, and helping your central nervous system to work. Here are the foods vitamin B12 is primarily found in:
· Organ meats like liver
· Shellfish like clams
· Dairy foods like milk
· Fortified foods like some cereals and nutritional yeast
So, it’s no surprise that many people of any age who avoid meat and/or other animal foods like cheese and yogurt might find themselves with low B12 levels. And research shows that low B12 levels might be hurting veghead kids and teens in the classroom— one study from the Netherlands found that near-vegan students had lower levels of B12 and a harder time completing psychological tests than students who ate omnivorous diets.
The good news about B12: When you’re getting plenty, your body puts some into storage for future use. So if you’re not getting enough from day to day, your body likely has a reserve to draw from. However, if your stored B12 get low over time, you can get into trouble.
A person who becomes deficient in vitamin B12, may experience symptoms like:
· Loss of balance
· Tingling in the arms and legs
Good news, though—you don’t have to wait until you’re feeling bad to find out if you are low on B12. Ask your doctor for a blood test. Unfortunately, doctors don’t routinely screen for B12 deficiency, so you should be sure to request it.
If you find out your B12 is low, you can supplement via a pill you swallow, one you put under your tongue, a nasal gel or an injection. Your doctor or dietitian can help you determine which one is right for you. Anyone older than age 14 needs about 2.4 micrograms per day. If you’re younger than 14, you’ll need 1.8 micrograms.
If your B12 levels are A-OK, keep up the good work. You can continue (or start) eating the following foods to help maintain those numbers (for the record, B12 only occurs naturally in animal-based foods; the vegan foods that contain B12 have all been fortified. And remember that if you’re a lacto-ovo veg, eggs, yogurt, cheese and milk are also good sources).
· Nutritional yeast (make sure it contains B12 as not all do)—try it sprinkled on popcorn; so good!
· Fortified soy, almond, or coconut milk
· MorningStar Farms meat substitute products
· Fortified tofu
One method by which you cannot boost your B12 levels: Eating unwashed vegetables. This rumor has apparently been making the rounds—and has even been studied by scientists. Because B12 can be produced by bacteria, including fecal bacteria (yep, poop). As a result it is found in certain types of soil, and could theoretically get transferred to the vegetables. Not only is there no clear research supporting this potential B12 boost can help the average person buying groceries at the store, but it’s also probably a really bad idea to eat unwashed, poopy vegetables. Did we really just say that?
Have you had any issues with B12 levels since going veg? What vegetarian sources of B12 do you like to eat? Tell us about it below!