There are 13 known vitamins human bodies need for regular growth and maintenance, and more than half of them are forms of vitamin B. You might know some by other names like riboflavin, folic acid, and niacin, but collectively, these water-soluble vitamins play a crucial role in energy production by helping the body convert food into fuel. Despite this vital role, your body can't make them, at least in the amounts you need to be healthy, so it's essential to get your fill from foods (or occasionally, supplements).
Lately, one of those B vitamins, in particular, has been getting lots of attention: B12. Traditionally, most people in the United States had little problem eating enough foods high in vitamin B12, but as the popularity of meat-free, vegetarian, or "plant-based" diets grows, that could be changing, which is one of the reasons it's so important to add these foods high in vitamin B12 to your diet.
Special diet, special considerations
"Since there are not naturally many plant-based foods high in vitamin B12, people who avoid most animal products, such as vegans and some vegetarians, may suffer from a deficiency," says Cordialis Msora-Kasago, MA, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And they aren't the only ones.
Anyone who has had gastrointestinal surgery or suffers from digestive disorders such as Crohn's or celiac disease is at risk of a deficiency as well, and will want to do their best to eat more foods high in vitamin B12, she says. "Vitamin B12 absorption is very dependent on the amount of hydrochloric acid in our stomachs. As we age, the level of hydrochloric acid decreases, so it gets more difficult to absorb the nutrient even when eating a lot of foods high in vitamin B12." These are the 11 signs you're not getting enough vitamin B12.
A vital vitamin
B12 plays a role in the production of red blood cells and energy, and helps prevent nerve damage, helps maintain cognitive function, and other biological processes, including these vitamin B12 benefits for your entire body, says Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, CLT, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While most people in the United States get their fill of the nutrient from food—only somewhere between 1.5 and 15 percent of the public are deficient in B12, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements—symptoms such as tingling or numbness, weakness, nerve pain, or anemia, should send you to a doctor to have your B12 levels checked, she says.
Much like other nutrients, the amount of B12 you need varies throughout your life, says Msora-Kasago. "Most adult men and women need 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12, which is the equivalent of eating 3 ounces of canned tuna. During pregnancy and lactation, vitamin B12 requirements for women increase to 2.6 to 2.8 mcg respectively."
It's always better to get vitamins from whole foods high in vitamin B12 than pills, so make sure to work some of the following foods high in vitamin B12 (and we'll tell you just how high) into your regular menu rotation.
Salmon, 4.8 mcg
This is the king fish for sure. In addition to all those omega-3 fatty acids, a single three-ounce serving of salmon has nearly double the amount of B12 adults need in a day. The same amount of tuna has 2.5 mcg, and you should be wary of consuming it too often due to its high mercury content. Rainbow or wild trout is another good choice, with 5.4 mcg per three ounces.
Liver, 60 mcg
This is not an America favorite, but it is one of the best sources of vitamin B12, Msora-Kasago. Beef has the most B12 with 60 mcg per three-ounce serving, while chicken liver has about 18 mcg for the same amount. Can't stomach organs? Three ounces of top sirloin beef has 1.4 mcg, and the same amount of roasted chicken breast has 0.3 mcg.
Clams, 84 mcg
Seafood is pretty high in general, but these mollusks are the absolute best bang for your buck when it comes to foods high in vitamin B12. They've also got plenty of lean protein and iron, which can help find anemia, a health issue that may exacerbate B12 deficiencies. And because they're filter feeders, they tend to have a lot fewer toxins like mercury and other pollutants. Crabs are another good source, as shellfish go, with more than 7 mcg per three-ounce serving.
Dairy, around 1 mcg
Yup, good old moo juice is a decent source of B12 vitamins, delivering 18 percent of your RDA of B12 per cup. Other dairy sources include yogurt and Swiss cheese, which all ring in around roughly the same amount. Oh, and if you're feeling full-fat, go for it—it's one of the dairy myths that has been laid to rest.
Caviar, 5.67 mcg
This luxury food often gets left off the list of healthy seafood, but it shouldn't. Besides being one of the best natural sources of omega-3s, it's also a food high in vitamin B12, with just one ounce almost doubling your RDA. A standard chicken egg, by comparison, has less than half a microgram. Want to really bone up on more omega-3? Check out these surprising sources.
Cereal, around 6 mcg
Most grain cereals are fortified with different B vitamins. The practice started in the 1940s when a disease caused by a B3 deficiency caused the government to fortify flour with niacin. Now you'll find that most packaged foods, especially grains, have extra B vitamins. Kellogg's Corn Flakes, for instance, has 15 percent of your RDA of B12. This can be a good choice for people trying to cut back on meat in their diet without skimping on foods high in vitamin B12. Top it with some fortified almond, soy, oat, or rice milk for a bonus 1 mcg, says Angelone.
Nutritional yeast, 1.5 mcg
Another great vegan option, this yellowish powder is technically a fungus, like brewer's yeast, but it's dairy-, gluten-, and soy-free and packed with nutrients, including B12. One teaspoon sprinkled on avocado toast will give you a B12 boost, and the flavor is mild. It's also got other B vitamins, including B6, which Angelone says work together for something called homocysteine metabolism. "Excess homocysteine can contribute to coronary heart disease and stroke," she says.
Dairy substitutes, around 1 mcg
Most milk alternatives, be it almond, coconut, soy or oat, are fortified with B12. A single glass of Silk's Oat Yeah has 50 percent of your RDA. When you think about how many ways you use milk or a milk alternative—in your coffee, cereal, oatmeal, omelet (and that's just breakfast!) it adds up fast. Just be careful about this one possible side effect (hint: it affects your brain).