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Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has always been a concern in vegan diets since this vital nutrient is not found in plant foods.

"I don't know if you answer questions," a reader wrote recently. I assured her I do, as time allows.

"After reading recent articles, I am wondering about whether vegans can get enough vitamin B12 and enough choline and if there are other elements that are problematic for them. I have an adult child who has become vegan after years of being vegetarian. He does not cook much and eats a lot of prepared foods, which is not the best anyway, but now I wonder about these issues. I hope you can offer some advice. Thank you. — Carolynn"

Dear Carolynn: By definition, vegan diets exclude all animal foods including eggs and dairy products. Honey (because it comes from bees) is also a no-no to some vegans. The latest position paper on this topic by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics assures us that "a well-planned vegetarian diet containing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can provide adequate nutrition."

Key here is "well-planned." Whether your adult child is getting the most benefit from becoming vegan depends — like it does for all eating styles — on the nutrient balance in the foods he chooses to eat.

Vitamin B12 has always been a concern in vegan diets since this vital nutrient is not found in plant foods. And vital means essential; a deficiency of B12 can cause fatigue, tingling in the fingers or toes, poor digestion and mental symptoms that mimic dementia.

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Studies have shown that fermented foods (such as tempeh), nori, spirulina, chlorella algae and unfortified nutritional yeast cannot be relied upon as adequate or practical sources of B12. Nutrition experts therefore recommend that, in addition to a supplement that contains vitamin B12, vegans should consume foods fortified with this vitamin at least twice a day. (Many breakfast cereals and other grain-based foods are fortified with B12; check the label.)

Choline is an essential nutrient that helps preserve the structure of all our body's cells. In addition, choline helps form neurotransmitters that keep our memory, mood, muscle control and other important functions up to par.

Animal-based foods are the best sources of choline, but this nutrient is also found in plant foods such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. An added bonus: Our bodies can manufacture some choline in the liver.

Surprising to some, protein needs can usually be met in vegan diets with the regular consumption of legumes and soy-based foods. An exception is the "fruitarian" vegan diet, which is limited to fruits and possibly some nuts and seeds. These diets typically supply inadequate amounts of protein.

So there you have it. Since vegan diets restrict readily available sources of some key nutrients, your son needs to understand how to plan his meals so as to avoid any nutritional deficiencies. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help.

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Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian. Email her at barbara@quinnessentialnutrition.com.

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