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The question: I don't eat meat. How can I get enough vitamin B12?

The answer: Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal foods including meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy. If it's only red meat you avoid – or red meat and poultry – you can still get B12 by drinking milk and eating yogurt and eggs. Strict vegetarians who avoid all animal products need to rely on foods fortified with B12 and, in many cases, B12 supplements.

It's critical you meet your daily B12 requirements (adults require 2.4 micrograms a day) since the body relies on a steady intake to make and repair DNA, to produce red blood cells and to keep your nervous system working properly. Vitamin B12 is also used to convert carbohydrates, proteins and fats in foods into energy compounds the body can use.

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Here's how animal foods stack up when it comes to B12: mussels (3 oz. = 20 mcg), salmon (3 oz. = 4.9 mcg), ground turkey (3 oz. = 1.7 mcg), chicken breast (3 oz. = 0.3 mcg), yogurt (3/4 cup = 1 mcg), milk (1 cup = 1 mcg) and egg (1 whole = 0.6 mcg).

As a comparison, three ounces of lean beef has 2.8 mcg of vitamin B12.

You'll also find B12 added to fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, non-dairy milks (e.g. soy, almond, rice, hemp) and some soy products including veggie burgers and veggie dogs. If you rely on these foods for B12, check the nutrition label to be sure you're buying a product that is fortified. For example, fortified plant beverages contain 1 mcg of B12 per 1 cup and will provide 50 per cent of the daily value (%DV) for B12 per serving.

Another source of vitamin B12 is nutritional yeast, a special type of yeast that lends a nutty, cheesy flavour to foods. (It's not the same type of yeast used for baking bread.) Nutritional yeast is sold in natural food stores as flakes that can be sprinkled over foods.

To be sure you're meeting your daily B12 requirement, you might consider taking a multivitamin supplement. I recommend doing so if you're over 50. That's because absorption of vitamin B12 from foods relies on an adequate release of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid). It's estimated that as many as 30 per cent of older adults have atrophic gastritis, a condition that reduces the stomach's ability to release acid.

Individuals who take medications that can impair B12 absorption such as acid-blocking drugs (used to treat reflux and ulcers) and metformin (used to control blood sugar) may also benefit from a multivitamin. As well, vegans who don't add B12 fortified foods to their daily diet should take a multivitamin with 5 to 10 mcg of B12. Vitamin B12 supplements are also available.

If you're B12 deficient, speak to your doctor or dietitian about the right type of B12 supplement for you. In some cases, B12 injections may be required.

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Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct lesliebeck.com.

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