Thanks to the explosion of CSAs, the revival of American farmers’ markets, and our growing national interest in whole foods, curiosity about the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism has never been greater.
With that curiosity comes an equally important mandate to be informed. As a counselor who works with many men and women who are exploring vegetarian or vegan diets, I find that my role is often more educator than nutritionist. It’s my job to help people transition into their new lifestyles responsibly, and this means staging serious conversations about both the advantages and the challenges of plant based eating.
Aside from the obvious queries—“where will I get my protein?” for example—one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is this: is there anything I should be worried about not getting enough of? I’m always pleased to tell people that, while it’s important to focus on finding high quality plant based sources of protein, iron, and calcium, a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide for all of the body’s nutritional needs, from macronutrients (water, protein, and fats) to micronutrients like minerals and vitamins. All, that is, save one. Vitamin B-12 doesn’t occur naturally in plant foods, unless they’ve been altered by microorganisms or fortified accordingly.
What is B-12, and what does it do?
B-12, also known as cobalamin, is responsible for a healthy nervous system and aids in the formation of red blood cells. We don't need much B-12, but there are no plant foods that serve as reliable long-term sources, so vegans need to seek out a supplement or take care to eat foods—like nutritional yeast or fortified soy milk—that contain B-12. I recommend that all vegans seek out a high quality supplement. This can be a multi-vitamin that caters specifically to vegans (such as the Garden of Life Vitamin Code line), a full spectrum B complex, or an exclusive B-12 supplement (I really like the Megafoods brand’s Balanced B-12).
If you’re wondering what to do with nutritional yeast, by the way, you’re not alone! Many newcomers to veganism are mystified by this yellow powder, which most people find “cheesy” in flavor. It’s therefore a great substitute for parmesan cheese on pasta, grains, or vegetables. It’s also a nice (and relatively tasteless) addition to smoothies. If you’re looking for a truly B-12 rich vegan dish, try this tofu “ricotta” recipe on for size. It’s delicious atop vegan tortillas with basil and tomato sauce, or as sandwich filler. Best of all, it combines two ingredients—fortified tofu and nutritional yeast—that are sure to give you a whopping dose of the B-12 you need.
Tofu “Ricotta” (serves 2)
- 8 oz firm, fortified tofu (such as Nasoya TofuPlus)
- 3 tbsp nutritional yeast
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Crumble the tofu with your hands, and mush in the salt, nutritional yeast, and lemon juice. Feel free to add any herbs you like (dill and oregano are great). Serve as a substitute for cheese, or simply as a nutrient-rich snack!
Gena Hamshaw is a certified clinical nutritionist with an emphasis on plant-based nutrition. She writes about body image, green living, and a plant-based lifestyle on her popular blog, ChoosingRaw.com.