Vitamin B12 Deficiency Seen in All Types of Vegetarians
June 18, 2003 -- Researchers have long known that a strict vegetarian diet -- one that excludes all animal products -- can lead to vitamin B-12 deficiency, and possibly heart disease. Now, new research suggests that even those who follow a more lenient vegetarian diet are also at risk.
In the July issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, German researchers tracked 174 apparently healthy people living in Germany and the Netherlands.
They found that 92% of the vegans they studied -- those who ate the strictest vegetarian diet, which shuns all animal products, including milk and eggs -- had vitamin B12 deficiency. But two in three people who followed a vegetarian diet that included milk and eggs as their only animal foods also were deficient. Only 5% of those who consumed meats had vitamin B12 deficiency.
The problem: Vitamin B12 deficiency can boost blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid implicated as a strong risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Studies have suggested that high homocysteine levels can promote blockages in arteries over time, possibly leading to heart disease and stroke.
"As the number of vegetarians is increasing worldwide, we have special concerns about some health aspects of this diet," lead researcher Wolfgang Herrmann, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "We have a particular concern over vitamin B12 status being regularly monitored in vegetarians -- most importantly, in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children of vegetarian mothers and on macrobiotic diets, elderly vegetarians, and people who already have atherosclerosis."
Unlike some other B vitamins, B12 is not found in any plant food other than fortified cereals. It is, however, abundant in many meats and fish, and in smaller amounts in milk and eggs. This makes it difficult for people following a strict vegetarian diet to get the necessary amount of vitamin B12.
Meat Eaters: This Includes You
Even young, healthy, vitamin-taking meat-eaters may not be getting enough B12, according to Tufts University nutritionist Katherine Tucker, PhD.
In a study published three years ago, also in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, she found that nearly 40% of 3,000 adults under age 50 had blood levels of vitamin B12 low enough to cause problems.