More Energy & Less Fatigue on the Trail: Spotlight Vitamin B12
The most common reason why thru-hikers and long-distance backpackers become lethargic is from improper nutrition caused by eating junk food. Although sugary and salty snacks may satisfy your hunger and make you feel full, they lack the necessary vitamin and mineral content to keep your body energized and healthy. This often results in vitamin deficiencies, a major contributor to fatigue in the short term and illness in the long term.
Here we highlight Vitamin B12, a common deficiency affecting up to 5% of the general population and 15% of those over the age of 65. Higher rates of B12 deficiency occur with vegetarians who do not supplement or eat fortified foods.1 However, it is likely that deficiencies are much more widespread because many scientists believe that the current threshold is set too low.
Spotlight: Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 is the general name for a group of essential compounds called cobalamins. Cobalamins are similar to hemoglobin in the blood with the exception that they contain the rare element cobalt instead of iron.
Vitamin B12 is required for your body to make red blood cells. If you don’t get enough of this nutrient, your blood will not contain enough oxygen, and you will feel weak and sluggish. Since your body can’t make B12, you have to get it from food or supplements on a regular basis.
The role of Vitamin B12 in the body
Produces Energy. B12 works with vitamin B9 (folate) to convert carbohydrates from food into usable glucose for the creation of energy.
Prevents Anemia. B12 along with other vitamins in the body is needed to form red blood cells and utilize iron.
Protects the Brain. Vitamin B9 and Vitamin B12 have fundamental roles in nucleotide synthesis for proper brain function. They are both believed to play a substantial role in the prevention of neurological disorders and dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Protects Nerves. B12 is required to maintain the fatty sheaths that cover and protect nerve endings.
Vegetarian Backpacking Food Sources of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found in almost all foods of animal origin, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. This does not mean you have to eat animal foods to get B12 though. Fortified foods such as nutritional yeast and breakfast cereals are all excellent dietary sources with high bioavailability for vegetarians.2
- All-Bran Cereals. Most major brands of breakfast cereals are fortified with B12.
- Fortified Nutritional Yeast. Not all brands of nutritional yeast contain vitamin B12. The yeast must be fortified for this purpose by the culture process. Always check the label to see if it includes it. All of Outdoor Herbivore’s nutritional yeast products contain B12. Vitamin B12 is not destroyed during cooking. It can withstand the boiling point of water for several hours. You need only a small amount of nutritional yeast to get your RDA of this vitamin. It is very cost effective which is why we recommend you carry it with you and sprinkle a little here and there on all your backpacking dinners. If you rely solely on nutritional yeast for your B12, be sure it is not stored in direct sunlight; otherwise, the nutrient will break down.
- 1 Tbs of Red Star Vegetarian Support Yeast contains 100% of the DV of B12.
- Fortified Soy. Some tofu products are fortified with vitamins, such as calcium and B12. However, most dried tofu/tempeh, vegan jerky, and soy milk powders are unfortified which means they don’t contain any B12.
- Energy Bars. Many brands are fortified with vitamins especially those marketed as ‘meal replacement’ bars. Check the label for B12.
- Dried Eggs & Dried Cheese Powder. B12 is naturally occurring in these foods and remains after it is freeze-dried or dehydrated.
- A quarter-cup of dried cheddar cheese contains 5-10% of the DV of the vitamin.
- A half-cup of dry egg powder (43 grams) supplies 50% of the DV.
- B-Fresh Gum. Gum is not food so you’ll have to decide if it is worth carrying on the trail but it a neat way to get your intake of both calcium and B12 on the trail, plus gum keeps your jaws busy, breath fresh, and teeth clean.
- 1 piece of B-Fresh gum contains more than 100% of the DV for B12.
Plant-based B12 Analogs
There is much confusion about vegetarian sources of natural B12. If you read no further, please know: B12 is produced by bacteria. Neither plants nor animals can make vitamin B12. Animals get vitamin B12 by eating contaminated foods. Humans (omnivores) get their vitamin B12 by eating the animal. Plants do not contain vitamin B12 unless they are infected by fecal microorganisms or have synthetic vitamin B12 added to them. Human herbivores can’t rely on contaminated plants for B12 – you’d have to eat bucketloads of unsanitized food which is unrealistic and unsafe.
Some health food sources recommend algae such as spirulina for Vitamin B12; however, this information is wrong. The bioavailability of such forms has been disputed with improved testing procedures. The latest studies demonstrate that algae and sea vegetables contain inactive B12 analogs, which is chemically similar to real vitamin B12 but produces no vitamin effect in the body. Chlorella and nori may be an exception as it seems to contain active B12 which the human body can assimilate.4 It is believed that the nutrient is not produced by the plant itself, but rather by microorganisms which live within the plant. No one knows how much nori or chlorella we’d need to eat to get enough B12, however. The best way is to supplement with vitamins or eat fortified foods.
Plants do not contain B12
Algae does not contain absorbable vitamin B12. Chlorella may contain B12 if it’s cultivated to grow bacteria.
The only surefire guarantee for vegans to get B12 is to supplement or eat fortified foods
Increase your B12 Intake if:
- Over the age of 50
Older adults are at a higher risk of vitaminB12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 which occurs naturally in food is released by hydrochloric acid and gastric protease found in the stomach. Stomach acid declines with age which means the cells in the stomach which helps you absorb and process B12 from food also diminishes. Also, older adults are more likely to have the bacteria H. pylori inside their intestinal tract, which causes nutrient malabsorption. H. pylori infection is widespread and is found in about two-thirds of the world’s population and up to 40% in the US.3 You will need to take supplements or eat more B12 fortified foods to prevent deficiency.
- Suffer from a digestive disorder
B12 deficiency is common in those that are gluten intolerant, suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, low stomach acidity, those taking heartburn medication long-term (PPI drugs which alter the stomach pH such as Prilosec and Prevacid) and people taking drugs for peptic ulcers (H2 blockers such as Pepcid AC and Zantac). Make sure to supplement and regularly test for deficiency. Furthermore, these medical conditions may require taking vitamin B12 supplements that bypass the gastrointestinal tract.4
- Vegetarian or vegan
Vegetarians can become deficient in B12 if they are not careful about supplementing because this nutrient is not present in plant foods. Vitamin B12 is made from microorganisms so unless the soil is ‘contaminated’ with fecal or insect bacteria, it will not contain it. A common misconception is to not wash produce because the dirt left on your vegetables contains essential vitamin B12. This amount of B12 is not sufficient for a daily recommended intake. Even so, most traces of B12 found in plant-based food is likely to get washed off during processing (or before eating) making it an unreliable source. You will need to take supplements or eat more B12 fortified foods to prevent deficiency.
Key Indicators that you have a B12 Deficiency
Not having enough of the B12 nutrient in the short-term will cause –
Fatigue with forgetfulness
Restless legs, or numbness and tingling
The long-term impacts of deficiency (e.g., 10+ years) is a severe problem which can ultimately lead to irreversible damage to the nervous system, including blindness, deafness, and dementia. The only way to verify that you are suffering from a B12 deficiency is to have your levels checked by taking a blood test methylmalonic acid (MMA).
Deficiencies can be easily remedied by getting this nutrient in your diet.
- Eat foods containing B12 (natural or fortified) in your daily diet. An easy way on the trail is to use nutritional yeast.
- Take a Vitamin B12 supplement. Supplements come in different forms, and not all are equally effective. The active types in nature are methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, and hydroxocobalamin. If you are vegetarian, vegan, have intestinal issues, low stomach acid, anemia, or are older than 50 years, you should supplement with methylcobalamin. The formula labeled methylcobalamin is an active form that is easier for your body to use. Avoid cyanocobalamin which is a cheaper version that is difficult for the body to absorb (especially if you have the MMACHC gene mutation). Choose a B12 supplement that dissolves in your mouth (sublingual) for best absorption.
- The recommended daily value for vitamin B12 intake for adults is 2.4 micrograms per day by the US Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) guidelines. You should get more than the minimum because this is likely too low.6
- B12 supplements will only heighten your energy level if you’re levels are low; unlike caffeine, B-vitamins won’t give you a boost if you already have ample stores.
Unless the body is deficient in a nutrient, supplementing with vitamin and minerals will not improve hiking performance. Taking vitamins is a good idea if you eat a restricted diet or eat poorly. This guide is meant to identify if you have a potential deficiency and to prevent it through diet.
 Pawlak R, e. (2018). The prevalence of cobalamin deficiency among vegetarians assessed by serum vitamin B12: a review of literature. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24667752
 Pawlak R, e. (2018). How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23356638  B12 Deficiency May Be More Widespread Than Thought : USDA ARS. (2018). Ars.usda.gov. from https://www.ars.usda.gov/news-events/news/research-news/2000/b12-deficiency-may-be-more-widespread-than-thought/
 Institute of Medicine (US) Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes and its Panel on Folate, a. (1998). Vitamin B12. National Academies Press (US). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK114302/
 H. Pylori | Helicobacter Pylori Infections | MedlinePlus. (2018). Medlineplus.gov. Retrieved 13 February 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/helicobacterpyloriinfections.html  Watanabe, F., Yabuta, Y., Bito, T., & Teng, F. (2014). Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians. Nutrients, 6(12), 1861-1873. doi:10.3390/nu6051861  Dagnelie PC, van Staveren WA, van den Berg H. Vitamin B-12 from algae appears not to be bioavailable. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991;53:695-7.
 Medications Known to Decrease Vitamin B12 Levels (2018). Ebmconsult.com. from https://www.ebmconsult.com/articles/vitamin-b12-medication-interactions-lower-levels
 Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin B12. (2018). Ods.od.nih.gov. from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
 Ods.od.nih.gov from https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer.pdf  Kennedy, D. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients, 8(12), 68. doi:10.3390/nu8020068 Vitamin B12 for Vegans and Vegetarians | Dr. Schweikart. (2018). B12-vitamin.com from http://www.b12-vitamin.com/vegan-vegetarian/ What Every Vegan Should Know About Vitamin B12. (2018).
The Vegan Society from https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients/vitamin-b12/what-every-vegan-should-know-about-vitamin-b12
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