This past year, several people I love and care about were beset with illness. They are vegetarians or eat very little meat. One friend switched to a vegetarian diet for religious reasons and saw her energy level drop substantially and she was no longer able to adhere to her normal exercise routine. When she added meat back to her diet, her energy returned. Of course, not everyone experiences adverse effects from cutting meat out of their diet, nor do they have such sudden symptoms. Different people thrive on different types of diets (except, Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food on the typical American diet.) Other vegetarians I love and care about have experienced cerebrovascular accidents (CVA), otherwise known as strokes.
There is an inverse relationship between homocysteine levels and some B vitamins, namely Vitamin B12 and Vitamin B6. Because Vitamin B12 is found mainly in meat (it is also found in eggs), vegetarians and vegans are at risk of being Vitamin B12 deficient. This can correlate with a high blood homocysteine level, which has been associated with cardiovascular consequences. Homocysteine levels can be lowered by getting enough vitamin B12 and folate in your diet, or by supplementing these B vitamins. More work needs to be done; I’d love to see more studies related to the relationship between nutrients and health. I’d also like to see routine testing for Vitamin B12 levels in the blood.
In my own experience, doctors have recently been more regularly checking their patients’ serum Vitamin D levels. This is great since Vitamin D is a stem-cell-regulating hormone and good for so many body systems. I’d love to see the same trend happen with Vitamin B12. In my case, only two doctors, out of 20 or more, tested my Vitamin B12 level, despite classic B12 deficiency symptoms. Because my Vitamin B12 level was “low normal,” between 200 – 400 pmol/L, the deficiency diagnosis was initially missed. However, some people at this “low normal” level are actually deficient. I should of had follow-up testing back in 2008, but it wasn’t until late 2011, when a doctors’ office used a scale where their “normal” started at 400 pmol/L of Vitamin B12 and, subsequently, Dr. Joe diagnosed me with a Vitamin B12 deficiency (and later pernicious anemia).
I know a lot of people who are vegetarian or vegan. I am not trying to lure anyone back to being a meat-eater, but am concerned about long-term health effects from a diet often chosen for its health benefits (of which there are many). I have an auto-immune disease that, due to lack of Vitamin B12 in my system, has caused neurological damage from which I am still recovering. Because this has had such a devastating effect on my health and lifestyle, I tend to see the world with my “B12 goggles” on. Because the liver stores Vitamin B12, it can take many years before a deficiency manifests. When it does manifest, symptoms can be sudden and severe. I have good friends who are vegetarians. I admire them for their choice: I take it as a sign of their wanting to live healthfully, mindfully, and with an intentional awareness of their impact in the world.
To my vegetarian and vegan friends:
I love you. I admire you. I want you to be healthy and thrive so you can continue to make amazing, positive contributions to this world. Consider supplementing with Vitamin B12 for your long-term wellness.
Be well and B12.
Photo: Organic peanut butter on celery: