Vegans should take vitamin B12 supplements ‘permanently’: German Nutrition Society

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

'A vegan diet is not recommended by the DGE during pregnancy or lactation, or for children or adolescents of any age.' ©iStock/id-art
'A vegan diet is not recommended by the DGE during pregnancy or lactation, or for children or adolescents of any age.' ©iStock/id-art
It is “difficult or impossible” for vegans to get enough of nutrients like vitamin B12, the German Nutrition Society (DGE) has said in a position paper now cited by the government.

“With a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients. The most critical nutrient is vitamin B12,”​ the DGE wrote in its review​ of scientific literature now cited on the German government’s website.

Other potentially critical missing nutrients include protein, “indispensable”​ amino acids, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins like riboflavin, vitamin D and minerals like calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium.

“Since rejecting any animal foods increases the risk of nutrient deficiencies and thus of health disorders, a vegan diet is not recommended by the DGE during pregnancy or lactation, or for children or adolescents of any age.”

However they said people who do choose to follow a vegan diet should “permanently” ​take vitamin B12 supplements and have vitamin B12 intakes regularly checked by a physician and “select very specifically nutrient dense foods and fortified foods, in order to ensure supply of nutrients, particularly critical nutrients”.

The report also said vegans should “possibly”​ have the supply of other critical nutrients regularly checked by a physician.

"Any diet that does not lead to the intake of adequate levels of essential nutrients and energy is unfavourable. The DGE recommends a diet that includes all groups of foods in the nutrition circle - including animal products,"​ it said. 

supplements pills nutrition iStock theevening

International opinion 

The report cited the differing opinions of several international nutrition bodies. 

In the past the likes of the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the Canadian Paediatric Society have said an appropriately planned vegan diet that includes food supplements and fortified foods is nutritionally adequate and therefore appropriate for individuals during all life stages, including pregnant and lactating women.

"In the opinion of the British Nutrition Foundation a well-planned, balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate. More extreme diets, such as strict macrobiotic and raw food diets, are often low in energy and a range of micronutrients, making them wholly inadequate and inappropriate for children,"​ the report said. 

The Portuguese National Programme for the Promotion of a Healthy Diet recommends vegan infants are breastfed beyond the recommended period of six months up to two years during the complementary feeding phase to make sure they receive enough high quality milk protein. 

Meanwhile the Nutrition Committee of the German Society of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine "rejects"​ a vegan diet for healthy infants, unless supplements are taken.

Making the impossible possible?

Yet spokesperson for the pan-EU Vegan Society, Jimmy Pierson, told us: “With a little knowledge and planning, rest assured you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health.”

He said the British Dietetic Association (BDA) backed this idea. 

In 2014 BDA and the Vegan Society signed a Memorandum of Understanding seeking to: “Ensure that medical professionals and service providers know that well-planned plant-based, vegan-friendly diets can be devised to support healthy living at every age and life-stage.” 

Pierson said: “A reliable source of vitamin B12 is essential, either from cereals, non-dairy milks, yeast extract or any other foods fortified with B12; or from a supplement.

“And we recommend that everyone in the UK, regardless of diet, considers a vitamin D supplement.”

superfoods iStock baibaz

Fastest growing lifestyle trend  

DGE said vegan and vegetarian diets were increasingly popular in the Western world, with the typical vegetarian in this region being female, young, educated and wealthy, living in a city and following a ‘healthy lifestyle’.

It said data of veganism in Germany varied from between 0.1% and 1% of the population, amounting to between 81,000 and 810,000 people following this diet.

According to the Vegan Society, veganism is one of the "fastest growing lifestyles"​ in Britain with at least 542,000 people following a vegan diet, compared with 150,000 a decade ago.

“More and more people are acting upon the health and environmental benefits of veganism, and becoming more savvy about the realities of animal agriculture and deciding they do not want to contribute to the pain and suffering of animals,”​ Pierson told us.

He cited the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) report​ last year, which classified red meat consumption as “probably carcinogenic to humans” ​and processed meats consumption as “carcinogenic to humans”​.

“We know from several major studies that a varied, balanced vegan diet is effective in preventing several cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and strokes – all serious chronic health conditions,”​ he added.

“Vegans, on average, also have lower obesity rates than any other dietary group; particularly important as obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges we face, according to the World Health Organisation.”

In a post on the DGE report entitled ‘Vegan diets can have risks’ (translation), the German government said nutrition was a private matter to be decided by the individual.

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You do not "Get" B12, you make it. You do not "Get" Vit.D you make it too.

Posted by Paul Wilson,

Being a father of 5 children who were conceived, born, and now being raised as pure vegans, I kind of had to laugh a little when I read this article, especially the warning overlaid on the first photo.

I heard this B12 argument before. And so I researched it at the time (maybe 15 years ago) I've been vegan for 18 years.

I read an interesting paper on this. They explored this idea and discovered that some vegans needed B12 supplements and others didn’t (much like this article). The conclusion in that article was that they could not work out why, so they used the good old line “it must be genetic” and you should take a supplement just in case, regardless of any side effects. That’s never a very convincing argument in my view!

The reality is that B12 is made in the intestine (just google this “how is b12 made in the intestine”) with the combination of healthy intestinal flora and raw vegetation (as is the case with all herbivorous animals who’s flesh is eaten by omnivorous humans in an attempt to “get” B12). A vegan can have a healthy intestine or not for lots of different reasons which are all within their control. They can also eat a lot of raw food or not. They can eat a lot of processed food or not.

So, my conclusion is, if a vegan does not want to eat raw vegetation and maintain a healthy intestinal tract full of naturally occurring intestinal flora in which condition B12 will be made, then maybe a supplement is the best answer for that person (whether or not supplements work is another question altogether). Otherwise, common sense should be adopted.

The key floor in the article is the opening lines “It’s difficult or impossible to get enough B12”. The point here is that you do not get B12, you make it, whether you are vegan or not. So the article is dealing with the wrong question. It’s like saying you need to “get” vitamin D by eating it, when we all know that it is made in a nourished body in the skin when exposed to sunlight.

Also the nature test is a good one to challenge the question. Why do all other herbivorous and frugivorous mammals live well without B12 supplements. Are we more similar to a lion, bear or Tasmanian devil or an orangutan, kangaroo or koala? Anatomically, we are far more similar to the latter, especially when it comes to intestinal length, stomach PH levels, jaw action and instinct. Given that in nature herbivores produce B12 just fine, its more simple and sensible to emulate nature than to use a supplement.

Given the very high rates of bowel cancer in Germany, I'm not sure that we should be taking dietary recommendations from the German health advisers. In the past Governments of the world have recommended smoking, lead in petrol, animal milk and many other consumer items, many of which are now shunned or soon to be shunned.

Always good to read another view point though. Be a vegan and save yourself, and the panet!

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Posted by Dr.SIVAKUMAR,

Spirulina is a suitable source for B12 to the Vegan society. spirulina is a blue green algae and it is very similar with plant cultivation.

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