By Theresa AuCoin, M.Ed., CNC

When our beautiful daughter, Sharla, came to me and announced that she had decided to become vegan I was tremendously proud of her and excited for her new journey.  The more she described to me her compassion for animals and how we SHOULD be treating them, and certainly not eating them, I was very influenced by her, not to the extent that I became vegan, but certainly was much more aware and made some new choices in foods.  Even with my certification in nutritional counseling, I had never deeply studied the vegan lifestyle.  It truly all sounded admirable and very healthy. 

Fast forward about 5 years.  Sharla, being a foodie and a truly amazing cook, decided to produce a Vegan Cookbook and asked me to help.  I was excited.  We spent weeks putting together fantastic vegan recipes.  Then we spent days prepping and preparing.  The day of the production arrived.  My kitchen and dining room turned into a whirl of exciting activity with aromas making us all salivate!  Cooking, plating, and cooking and plating and cooking and plating.  The professional photographer was  trying to keep up with us!  It was a BLAST!  That’s not all.  We had invited many “tasters” to try each dish, most of whom were not vegan.  In every single case, the tasters LOVED what they ate!  We could hardly get them to leave!  What fun we all had!  And what beautiful photos we ended up with for the cookbook!

Now was the time to type up the recipes, which Sharla worked on, and time for me to write a component in the cookbook which addressed the nutritional aspects of being vegan.  I began my research.  I never expected to discover the information I found.   Some of it was nothing less than shocking.  By this time, Sharla was not living in Charleston where I reside.  I began sending her articles and some of the research I had found, because she was having some health issues, that paralleled the information I found.  I was very concerned. 

So while the vegan philosophy is truly beautiful and ethical and full of compassion for animals, there are a number of dangers in sticking to veganism for an extended period of time.  So if you are vegan or are considering it, please take note of these facts.  These are truths that can be easily validated.  These are not philosophies, which are based on emotions and passions and compassion.  These are, unfortunately, truths that may affect your long term health.  Please notice that some nutrient deficiencies may show up long after damage has been done.  This may be the real inherent danger. 

So we’ll bring to light some of the vegan nutritional challenges: B12, Choline, Vitamin D, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Vitamin K2, Vitamin A, and absorption challenges and raising healthy children challenges, and making perfect babies concerns.

Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” I’m OK if you get pissed off, as long as you learn the truth.

B12 is not found in plants.

Do you REALLY need it? ..especially if you are getting ALL the other B vitamins?

To begin with, B12 itself is necessary to produce red blood cells and to prevent anemia.  It’s also needed for making use of protein you consume and helps your blood carry oxygen.  Therefore, it is essential for your energy.  In addition, it protects the health of your nervous system.  B12 has a very important role in keeping homocysteine levels down.  You may know that elevated homocysteine levels are linked with your increased risk of heart disease and stroke.  And as an important side note, every B vitamin works synergistically with the other B vitamins.  So if you shortchange yourself on one of them, all the others will be negatively affected over time.  Not good.

Could you have signs of B12 deficiency?

Herein lies the danger:  Vegans can have an undetected B12 deficiency for a long time before severe problems pop up.  This is likely because 1) the vegan diet is rich in folate, which often masks the B12 deficiency, and 2) some people have large stores of B12 in their livers when they convert to the vegan lifestyle, and when those stores run out, there will be issues.  Unfortunately when it does, it can be irreversible. 

Deficiency signs include poor hair condition, eczema or dermatitis, oversensitivity to heat or cold, tingling in the feet, irritability, depression, anxiety or tension, fatigue, constipation, tender or sore muscles, pale skin.  Long term permanent damage can include dementia, brain atrophy, deafness, and blindness.

What foods provide it?

Unfortunately this is one of the nutrients that cannot be found in vegetables or fruits. Plant foods can contain vitamin B12 on their surfaces from soil residues if the soil has been fertilized by human manure, so logically this is not a reliable source of B12 for vegans or vegetarians. You can find plenty of B12 in seafood, dairy, eggs, and meat, but those are not on the menu for vegans! Certain nutritional yeast products may qualify as vegan and do contain some B12.  More than a tablespoon would have to be consumed daily to meet the need for B12.  So what can you do? You could consume some Vitamin B12 fortified foods, but as you probably know, fortification usually is made up of synthetic versions of nutrients, which are not the most desirable and may come from animal sources.

Yes, vegans are at risk of experiencing serious B12 deficiencies, which may not present themselves until significant damage has been done.  

More to come …