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. And as the popularity of meat-free, vegetarian, or “plant-based” diets grows, that could be changing, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to add foods high in vitamin B12 to your diet.
Dietary restrictions require 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.” (Psst: These are the signs you’re not getting enough vitamin B12.)
Why B12 is 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 Canada get their fill of the nutrient from animal and fortified foods, 10 to 30 percent of adults over the age of 50 still have trouble absorbing vitamin B12, according to the Dietitians of Canada.
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 than pills, so make sure to work some of the following foods that are high in vitamin B12 into your diet.
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 one of the best sources of vitamin B12, says 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: Approx. 1 mcg
Yup, milk has a decent source of B12 vitamins, delivering 18 percent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of B12 per cup. Other dairy sources include yogurt and Swiss cheese, which all ring in around roughly the same amount.
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.
Cereal: Approx. 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, contains 100 percent of your RDA per serving. 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
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 flavour 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: Approx. 1 mcg
Most milk alternatives, be it almond, coconut, soy or oat, are fortified with B12. A single glass of Silk’s Oatmilk 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.
Next, check out our plant-based milk guide if you just can’t do dairy.