Experts have expressed concerns about the increased risk of anaemia, which can lead to a variety of symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, tinnitus, breathlessness, headaches, pale skin, palpitations, feeling faint, loss of appetite and weight loss. Although these often develop slowly, they can get worse if the condition is not treated.
Tackling the problem
Since 2018, plant-based product sales have risen by 49% in Western Europe as people adapt plant-based diets for environmental, health and animal welfare reasons.
However, Quadram Institute’s Professor Martin Warren, who helped set up research discussion group cluB-12 to increase awareness of the vitamin B12 deficiency and highlight ways it can be tackled, is urging policymakers and the general public to be more aware of the potential health effects and actions required to address the issue.
Professor Martin Warren said: “There is a hidden epidemic of vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarian and vegan populations and this is a particular concern for women of child-bearing age.
“We are concerned that the current UK recommendations, for example, take no account of pregnancy and this urgently needs to be addressed.
“There are many good reasons to a follow a planned and balanced plant-based diet, but for a vegan diet especially you should be aware of the potential for nutritional deficiency and the need to take appropriate vitamin B12 supplements.”
Recommendations from the experts
In the UK, the recommended nutritional intake for vitamin B12 among all adults is 1.5 micrograms a day. In the EU, it is 4 micrograms a day, increasing to 4.5 and 5 for pregnant and breastfeeding women respectively. In the US, it is 2.3 micrograms, while for pregnant and breastfeeding women it is 2.6 and 2.8 micrograms respectively.
Dr Kourosh R Ahmad, co-author from the University of Surrey, added: “Millions of people across the globe are switching to a plant-based diet for a myriad of ethical reasons – whether it’s because they have a love for animals or environmental reasons.
“Our paper is not about convincing people they are wrong for becoming vegans, but about making sure they are safe and don’t sleepwalk into being B12 deficient.
“Furthermore, there clearly needs to be a global consensus on guidance on daily intake recommendations for vitamin B12 – not just for adults but specifically for pregnant women and women who want to start a family.”
The researchers recommend that vegetarians and vegans take a daily supplement containing 4-7 micrograms of vitamin B12 with food, monitor their B12 status, get expert advice to support planning their plant-based diet, and seek expert advice when transitioning from a vegetarian to vegan diet, if intending to become pregnant, are breastfeeding or are over 60.