b12 isn’t a vegan problem

I’ve often noticed a trend that some people still claim being vegan is unhealthy. I’m not sure why; we live longer and get sick less than most people. Seventh-day Adventists have been proving that for quite some time. Being vegan is one of a short list of factors which actually improves all-cause mortality. The same list as exercise and not smoking. I’ve heard people say those aren’t true as well… but I’ve also heard people say the Earth is flat.

I don’t usually focus on the health benefits, as I’d rather change minds about the social issues that led me to become vegan. But they are real, and providing information about them might provide relief to some who are concerned about the health of a vegan they know. It’s reasonable and normal to be concerned about a loved one who makes a lifestyle change in a way we hadn’t previously considered. That concern does provide some safety. But the concern must also be tempered by reality and evidence, to be reasonable.

So, generally, explaining the science behind vegan nutrition is like explaining the big bang to a wary religious fundamentalist. Curiosity does not indicate acceptance. It’s going over the scientific evidence, explaining that the nutrition isn’t about ethics, and that the people on the scientific side are skeptical and weren’t the first to say “ok, it’s safe”, nor are they even vegans in most cases. But nonetheless all sources of claims about the facts and methodologies and results are bandied about in opposition, few of which have anything to do with the way science works. It reminds many vegans (especially the ones I’ve met who are also scientists) of trying to convince someone who advocates Intelligent Design that the big bang and evolution are real. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory, regardless of whether it accurately describes anything. It’s not simply about “my evidence is better” so much as “you haven’t presented any evidence for me to disagree with”. Many of us are precisely the people who argue against ID even when it’s unpopular to do so. We’re not the quacks in the discussion. Quite often (as I’ve seen firsthand) we’re vets and chemists and biologists who make our living thinking logically at a fairly deep level. The ethics are important of course, but they’re the “why” and not the “how”. Vegans seem to often draw a distinction when it’s time to get down to business, far more than the outdated image that we’re effete new age hippies who simply consider animals sacred and tack anything possible onto our religious argument. Of course some of us are, just like in any social group, and I actually have no problem with them. The initial minority in a social movement always includes quite a few eccentric people. To be blunt, vegans tend to be smart, so it should be expected. Our time on the soapbox (the real one, not the one populated with strippers and snuff) is simply too rare to squander.

Often when a panic-stricken parent or cattle rancher comes across a vegan with less than complete acceptance (i.e. someone influential in their industry or whom they might prepare food for), they mention allegations that being vegan is not healthy. Vitamin B12 deficiency is often one of the problems mentioned.

However, there are no documented cases of B12 deficiency in vegans who get enough calories in your diet. Eating a variety of foods is more than enough precaution in the minds of any doctor I’ve heard of who’s familiar with the subject. So, regardless of any nay-saying hypotheses that being vegan itself is unhealthy, the empirical evidence is fairly clear that it’s not. It’s an issue of “why” it’s not rather than “if” it’s not.

There’s considerable anecdotal evidence from doctors that B12 deficiency might be a non-issue for vegans, even if we didn’t get the RDA. B12 stays in one’s system a long time. Frankly, by the time most people go vegan, they’ve already stored up enough for their lifetime. That’s not just my personal hypothesis; that’s the conclusion reached by examining how quickly B12 levels drop when people go vegan. Here’s a hint: they don’t, even if a vegan gets less B12. It’s just not leeched out of our blood, for whatever reason.

Vegans, for those who haven’t noticed, are often health nuts who pour over health research. Junk food vegans excepted, but most ate like crap before being vegan. Many exceptional professional athletes, cancer survivors, and people with digestive system disorders are vegans because of advice from healthcare professionals. Many people occasionally go vegan for short periods because they feel much better. I believe I’ve heard the claim that as a group we’re self-righteous about our health more than once. Not that such a claim is bad, in America.

There’s also the claim that B12 can only be sourced from animals. Or that the B12 we do get is a non-useful analog (a minority opinion, to be fair). That’s simply not true. I get B12 from a vitamin I take every day. I get many times what nearly all of my omnivorous friends get, well above the RDA. It’s both synthetically created and produced in cyanobacteria (in different forms), but in great supply in any vegan (yes, really) vitamins. That’s mostly the same B12 most people get, as it’s the form used to nutritionally fortify foods. Think milk is healthy because it’s got B12 added? Then you might think a vegan vitamin makes one immortal.

I’ve asked knowledgable (omnivorous, actually) physicians what nutritional problems I should actively try to prevent. I’ve been asked exactly twice if I get enough protein. When I explain what I eat – and that I eat more protein because mine comes without the nutritionally questionable and filling fats – it wasn’t hard at all to be completely convincing. The people who worry don’t tend to know vegans while they shoot from the hip, and they aren’t the people who’ve studied the dietary habits of actual vegans. Science: it works.

And if you’re not getting enough calories as a non-vegan, you’ve got bigger problems.

Wednesday ~ January 13, 2010 by b

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