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Vegan For Life
by Jack Norris, RD &
Ginny Messina, MPH, RD
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Vegan Adults

Contents

Summary

Vegan adults who do not supplement with vitamin B12 tend have lower serum B12 levels than non-vegetarians. They sometimes have higher Mean Corpuscular Volume and MMA levels. They sometimes have overt B12 deficiency symptoms. These characteristics increase the longer one is on a vegan diet. Vegans who supplement their diets with vitamin B12 tend to have serum B12 levels in the normal range, but could stand to increase them to 350 - 405 pg/ml to ensure healthy homocysteine levels and reduce DNA damage.

Individual cases of overt B12 deficiency are listed in B12 Status: Individual Cases. Additional studies of vegan B12 status are located in B12 and Disease: Homocysteine.

Polish Clinical Trial (2012)

A group of 20 omnivores agreed to follow a vegan diet for 5 years. Half the group ate B12 fortified foods and the other half did not. Neither group took B12 supplements. The amount of B12 received via fortified foods was not measured. After 5 years, B12 levels in the group using fortified foods went from about 340 to 310 pg/ml. B12 levels went from about 290 to 220 pg/ml in the group not using fortified foods. Only two participants had B12 levels fall below 200 pg/ml, traditionally considered the cutoff for B12 deficiency, and they were both from the unfortified foods group (12).

Table 1. B12 Status of 250 Men per Diet Group in EPIC-Oxford 2001 Study
  Omnivores Lacto-ovo Vegetarians Vegans
B12 intake (mcg/day)9.62.4.4
Including supplements9.62.73.0
Plasma B12 levels (pg/ml)~400~230~160
Number with levels < 130 pg/ml150150

EPIC-Oxford (2001)

A 2001 abstract of EPIC-Oxford men, reported the following in Table 1.

Plasma B12 level differences between groups were statistically significant. Clearly, many of these vegans were not supplementing or eating enough fortified foods (1).


Studies on Adult Vegans Not Supplementing with B12

Australians have a lifestyle similar to North Americans, but with limited B12 fortified foods. Hokin & Butler (1999) examined Australian Seventh-day Adventist ministers, aged 22-80, who did not take B12 supplements. The results as seen in Table 2, showed vegans to have significantly lower B12 levels (2).

Table 2. B12 Status of Australians in Hokin & Butler Study
  # B12 (range) Malabsorption / IF deficiency
Non-Veg 53 394A ± 196 (181-973) NR
Lacto-Ovo 234 NRB 20% / 10%
Vegans 11 224A ± 100 (99-420) NR
Total 298  
A - Statistically significant difference between groups with same letters
B - Not significantly different from the Non-Veg
NR - Not reported

Crane et al. (1998, USA) studied 2 families (9 people) who were vegan for over 1 year and who did not regularly take B12 supplements or fortified foods:

  • They ate food from their gardens or local grocery stores.
  • Serum B12 (sB12) was below 200 pg/ml in 8 members; average sB12 was 190 ± 65 pg/ml.
  • The only family member over 200 pg/ml, with a B12 level of 331 pg/ml, was also the only one with signs of deficiency (mild numbness in one hand and easy fatigue). These cleared up after starting oral B12, so her high levels might be attributable to inactive B12 analogues.
  • 8 had high urinary MMA.
  • Homocysteine levels were in the normal range, but dropped after B12 therapy.
  • The subjects were given 500 µg B12/day, which they chewed before swallowing. After 2 months:
    • Average red blood cell count increased.
    • Average total cholesterol decreased by 10.3% and LDL cholesterol decreased by 19.6%. (Note: This is the only study that observed a cholesterol reduction in vegans because of B12 supplementation.)
    • Serum MMA levels dropped dramatically (from .65 ± .61 to .13 ± .06 µmol/l).
    • Average sB12 rose to 553 ± 113 pg/ml.

Crane et al. write:

The laboratory evidence in these two families is too strong to believe that they had an adequate amount of [B12]. It is remarkable that they had been on a total vegetarian diet for so long, yet with little or no clinical symptoms or signs of an insufficiency of cobalamin. In this study none of the family members were aware of symptoms of easy fatigability, tingling in the extremities, or frequent upper respiratory infections. (3)

Crane et al. (1994, USA) measured the sB12 of healthy adult vegans (1-28 years on the diet) who had not used B12 supplements or fortified foods in the previous year or more. See Table 3 for results.

Table 3. B12 Status in Non-supplementing Vegans in Crane et al. Study 1994
  # sB12 < 200 pg/ml sB12 < 100 pg/ml sB12 range
no FF or SUP for 1 yr 76 47 (62%) 19% 41-615
fortified soymilk for 1 yr 20A     304-540
A - 8 were children
FF - Fortified foods
sB12 - Serum B12
SUP - supplements

Participants with low B12 levels were given oral B12. The B12 levels of some of these participants did not increase, which led to the study about chewing B12 tablets mentioned under Chew or Dissolve Supplements Under the Tongue in Sources of B12 for Vegans.

Crane et al. also examined urinary MMA levels in 29 vegan adults who had not used B12 supplements or fortified foods in the previous year (4):

  • 11 had B12 levels < 200 pg/ml. Their average MCV (95.9 ± 5.5 fl) was significantly higher than those with higher B12 levels.
  • 7 of these 11 had high MMA.
  • None with normal B12 levels had elevated MMA.
  • One vegan of 5 years had no symptoms of B12 deficiency despite a sB12 of 90 pg/ml. However, after 1 month of oral B12, he noticed that his chronic indigestion after meals had disappeared.
Table 4. B12 Status of Thai Adults in Tungtrongchiter et al. Study 1993
  Serum B12 Serum B12 range
Male Non-Veg 490 176-825
Female Non-Veg 500 270-1400
Male Veg 117 31-730
Female Veg 153 22-460

Medkova et al. (2001, Russia) studied a vegan settlement in Siberia in 1993 (12, 13). They reported that the vegans had been vegan an average of 2.2 years and that their vitamin B12 levels were normal. This could have been due to having enough vitamin B12 stored in their system, and exact measurements were not given.

Tungtrongchitr et al. (1993, Thailand) studied 132 Thai adult vegetarians (64 males, 68 females) and 47 healthy nonvegetarians. The vegetarians apparently ate no animal products. Serum B12 levels are shown in Table 4.

There were some blood cell differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Serum B12 decreased as years as a vegetarian increased. Groups practicing vegetarianism for ≥ 6 years resulted in particularly low average sB12 levels (83-135 pg/ml) (5).

Bar-Sella et al. (1990, Israel) compared 36 vegans (5-35 years on diet) to 36 non-vegetarians. None of the vegans used supplements. Vegans had significantly lower levels of B12 (164 vs. 400 pg/ml). No non-vegetarian was deficient in B12, but 2 were borderline. No subjects had blood abnormalities. 4 vegans had a history of muscle pain, abnormal sensations in the legs, and difficulty concentrating. Their serum B12 levels are shown in Table 5.

Table 5. B12 Levels in 4 Vegans with History of Nerve-related Problems
Subject 1 2 3 4
Age 56 64 40 57
Serum B12 (pg/ml) 65 84 89 90

3 of the 4 were followed and showed substantial clinical improvement after B12 injections which increased their B12 levels to over 200 pg/ml (6).

Areekul et al. (1988, Thailand) found a significant difference between B12 levels (62 ± 78 pg/ml) in 29 apparently healthy vegetarians and 60 omnivores (629 ± 160 pg/ml). 8 vegetarians had undetectable B12 levels, while only 2 had levels over 200 pg/ml. The researchers did not state whether any of the vegetarians were taking B12 supplements, but they appeared not to be doing so (7).

Vegans Taking B12 Supplements

Table 6 shows the results of the Haddad et al. (1999, USA) study comparing vegans to non-vegetarians.

Table 6. Results of Haddad et al.
  # yrs on diet # taking B12 SUPA,B B12 (pg/ml) # with
B12 < 203
sMMA
> .38 µmol/l
Had 1 Indicator of
B12 deficiency
Vegans 25 4.2 (1-25) 9 421 ± 169 3 5 10
Non-Veg 20     423 ± 134 0 0  
A - Per correspondence with author
B - Some vegans ate B12 fortified foods
SUP - Supplements

There were no differences in homocysteine between the groups. There was a significant association between B12 supplementation and sB12 but no relation with sMMA. In private correspondence, Haddad suggested this was because some vegans did not regularly take the supplements and some had only recently begun. Blood will reflect recent higher B12 intake while MMA levels take longer to change (8).


Table 7. Results of Harman & Parnell
  sB12 (pg/ml)
Male Vegetarians 220 ± 103
Female Vegetarians 282 ± 132
Male Non-Veg 331 ± 142
Female Non-Veg 331 ± 167

Harman & Parnell (1998, New Zealand) compared 24 adult vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) (including some vegans; number not specified) to 23 non-vegetarian SDAs. Some vegetarians were taking B12 supplements and injections. Table 7 shows the results.

B12 levels did not differ significantly between groups (9).


Alexander et al. (1994, New Zealand) looked at 18 vegetarians. B12 levels were as shown in Table 8.

Table 8. B12 levels in Alexander et al.
  # Years on diet sB12
Vegan 5 6.6 (1-12) 277
Lacto-Ovo 13 > 5 229

Other findings were as follows:

  • 6 had B12 levels below the reference range: 82, 86, 182, 190, 197 (vegan or Lacto-Ovo wasn't specified). None had macrocytosis. The woman with the lowest value was found to have an intrinsic factor deficiency.
  • 7 vegetarians took B12 supplements and only one had low B12 levels, but their levels were not significantly different than those who did not take supplements.
  • The vegans actually had a higher average sB12 than the Lacto-Ovo. (10).
Table 9. Sanders et al. (1978, UK)
  Serum B12 (pg/ml)
22 Vegans 289 R 120-675
22 Non-Veg 371 R 250-775

Sanders et al. (1978, UK) compared adult vegan (no animal products ≥ 1 year; average 8 yrs) members of The Vegan Society (UK) to age and sex matched non-vegetarians. 18 of the vegans were taking B12 supplements or eating fortified foods. Results are shown in Table 9.

Table 10. Sanders et al. (1978, UK)
Years as vegan 2 4 6 6 13
Serum B12 200 225 230 180 120

5 vegans were not taking B12 supplements or fortified foods. See Table 10.

The results indicate that supplementing vegans had higher sB12 levels than non-supplementing (11).



References

1. Lloyd-Wright Z, Allen N, Key TJ, Sanders TB. How prevalent is vitamin B12 deficiency among British vegetarians and vegans? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK. 2001(Jul):174A.

2. Hokin BD, Butler T. Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B-12) status in Seventh-day Adventist ministers in Australia. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):576S-578S.

3. Crane MG, Register UD, Lukens RH, Gregory R. Cobalamin (CBL) studies on two total vegetarian (vegan) families. Vegetarian Nutrition. 1998; 2(3):87-92.

4. Crane MG, Sample C, Pathcett S, Register UD. "Vitamin B12 studies in total vegetarians (vegans). Journal of Nutritional Medicine.1994;4:419-430.

5. Tungtrongchitr R, Pongpaew P, Prayurahong B, Changbumrung S, Vudhivai N, Migasena P, Schelp FP. Vitamin B12, folic acid and haematological status of 132 Thai vegetarians. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1993;63(3):201-7.

6. Bar-Sella P, Rakover Y, Ratner D. Vitamin B12 and folate levels in long-term vegans. Isr J Med Sci. 1990;26:309-312.

7. Areekul S, Churdchu K, Pungpapong V. Serum folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin B12 binding protein in vegetarians. J Med Assoc Thai. 1988 May;71(5):253-7.

8. Haddad EH, Berk LS, Kettering JD, Hubbard RW, Peters WR. Dietary intake and biochemical, hematologic, and immune status of vegans compared with nonvegetarians. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(suppl):586S-93S.

9. Harman SK, Parnell WR. The nutritional health of New Zealand vegetarian and non-vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists: selected vitamin, mineral and lipid levels. NZ Med J. 1998 Mar 27;111(1062):91-4.

10. Alexander D, Ball MJ, Mann J. Nutrient intake and haematological status of vegetarians and age-sex matched omnivores. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1994;48:538-546.

11. Sanders TA, Ellis FR, Dickerson JW. Studies of vegans: the fatty acid composition. of plasma choline phosphoglycerides, erythrocytes, adipose tissue, and breast milk, and some indicators of susceptibility to ischemic heart disease in vegans and omnivore controls. Am J Clin Nutr. 1978 May;31(5):805-13.

12. MÄ…dry E, Lisowska A, Grebowiec P, Walkowiak J. The impact of vegan diet on B-12 status in healthy omnivores: five-year prospective study. Acta Sci Pol Technol Aliment. 2012 Apr 2;11(2):209-12. | link

13. Medkova IL, Mosiakina LI, Biriukova LS. [Results of a dynamic study on the status of health and nutrition of a Siberian vegan settlement]. Vopr Pitan. 2001;70(4):7-12. Russian. (Abstract) | link

14. Medkova IL. Healthstudy in a Vegan settlement in Siberia, Russia. Accessed 4/26/2013. | link