While vegetarianism has become the talk of the talk for good reason, here's some disappointing news. According to health experts, following a pure vegetarian diet may result in Vitamin B12 deficiency which is becoming common amongst Indians.
Vitamin B12 is a water soluble that regulates the functions of the brain and nervous system. It also plays an important role in the formation of blood. A Vitamin B12 deficiency may lead to irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system along with other symptoms like fatigue, depression and poor memory. The important sources of Vitamin B12 are mostly animal products like meat, fish, poultry, eggs and also dairy items.
32-year-old Nupur De swore by a vegetarian diet which helped her remain fit and healthy. Soon, she started feeling weak with a stinging sensation in her feet and suffered substantial weight loss and paleness, accompanied by bouts of depression. It was only after a number of prescribed tests that she detected with vitamin B12 deficiency.
"Yes, Indians who are pure vegetarians or vegans (who don't eat any animal products, including meat, milk, cheese, and eggs) are highly prone to be vitamin B12 deficient," says Anil Arora, Unit Head and Senior Consultant (orthopedics) at Max Super Speciality Hospital in Patparganj. He added that any healthy person who is a vegan or a vegetarian can get vitamin B12 deficient as he or she does not eat enough eggs or dairy products to meet the body's vitamin B12 needs.
The body needs vitamin B12, an essential micro-nutrient, to make blood cells and maintain a healthy nervous system. The laboratory reference range value of vitamin B12 is 110-1500 picograms per millilitre (pg/mL). Any lower value is regarded as deficient.
The deficiency can lead to anemia. A mild deficiency may cause only mild, if any, symptoms. But if it goes untreated, it may cause serious symptoms such as weakness, tiredness or light-headedness, pale skin, sore tongue, rapid heartbeat and breathing, easy bruising or bleeding, including bleeding gums, upset stomach, weight loss and even diarrhea or constipation.
"There can be multiple reasons for vitamin B12 deficiency. Low dietary intake is an important cause, especially in vegetarians, since vitamin B12 is rich in animal products; malnutrition and poor absorption due to gastrointestinal causes is another important cause. Besides this, vitamin B12 level can be low in some genetic diseases. In addition, gastric surgeries and alcohol abuse are also associated with low vitamin B12 level," says Sushma Sharma, Senior Consultant Neurologist at Asian Institute of Medical Sciences in Faridabad.
Vikram Huded, a Neurologist at Narayana Health City in Bangalore says that the deficiency level can be checked through a blood test. "If one family member develops the condition, then it should be understood that the entire family eats the same food. They should also get themselves checked as the deficiency can be treated easily. However, in the late phase it can also lead to heart attacks," Huded added.
So what supplementary foods should vegetarians take to maintain the vitamin B12 levels? "Foods fortified with B12 are also sources of the vitamin. Examples of such foods are breakfast cereals, fortified soy products, fortified energy bars, and fortified nutritional yeast," says Anil Arora. Huded added that vitamin B complex tablets are also a good alternative to fuel daily needs.
Health experts agree that there is a lack of awareness about the condition among people in India. "Yes, there is a lack of awareness in India about vitamin B12 deficiency. This can be tackled by emphasizing on it through media, better doctor-patient communication and roping in government health workers like anganwadi workers," says Sushma Sharma.