An Ethics-Based Diet: Quelling the Debate over Biology and Vitamin B-12

Sunday, August 5, 2012 @ 10:08 AM Dylan Falduto
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The health benefits of a plant-based diet are being widely acknowledged by respected professionals the world over. Scientists and physicians are validating the benefits a vegan lifestyle can offer to both the heart and digestive tract, while the myth that vegans are incapable of high level athletic performance because of a “protein deficiency” is being debunked by the success of world champion vegan athletes in an eclectic array of sports.

While many are opening their eyes to the myriad of health benefits veganism offers, there are of course still many detractors. The principle argument made against veganism is that human beings are “meant to eat meat,” and that because vegans choose to abstain from doing so, they are living an “unnatural” lifestyle. While stating that human beings are meant to abide by any one specific diet is certainly debatable, and calling a plant-based diet “unnatural” is entirely oxymoronic, the one factor working in favor of the theory that humans are biologically predisposed to eating meat is our necessity for vitamin B-12.

While a natural, plant-based diet is more than capable of supplying all essential micronutrients, macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, vitamin B-12 is the one exception. The only way for a human being to ingest vitamin B-12 “naturally,” is through the consumption of animals that have already consumed the vitamin. However, with the advent of technology there are plenty of readily available vegan-friendly foods and supplements containing more than enough of the vitamin to maintain a proper intake.

Vitamin B-12 is an essential, water soluble vitamin vital to normal brain, muscle, and nerve functioning. A deficiency in vitamin B-12 is very rare, even for individuals who do not regularly consume the vitamin, because the liver, where over 50% of the vitamin is stored, is able to store large amounts of the vitamin for up to several years. However, it is still VERY important to maintain a regular intake of the vitamin. A deficiency in vitamin B-12 can result in fatigue, anemia, and depression. An extreme deficiency, untreated for several years, can result in muscle deterioration and permanent damage to internal organs. Vitamin B-12 occurs naturally through the fermentation of bacteria. Neither human beings nor animals are capable of producing the vitamin internally, thus it is an essential vitamin, but animals are able to absorb the bacteria into their digestive track by ingesting plants containing the bacteria. Human beings are NOT able to do so.

Ensuring a healthy dosage of vitamin B-12 on a plant-based diet is no problem. For adequate intake of vitamin B-12, the Vegan Society recommends eating fortified foods two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms (μg or mcg) of B-12 a day, taking one B-12 supplement daily providing at least 10 micrograms, or taking a weekly B-12 supplement providing at least 2000 micrograms.

So having established the importance of vitamin B-12, and its “natural” availability to humans—outside of supplementation—solely being the consumption of animal products, it is easy to see how meat enthusiasts can use B-12 as a means to state their claim that human beings are biologically predisposed to eating meat and that veganism is “unnatural.”

However, what these detractors of veganism fail to consider, is that regardless of the fact that we may be biologically and physiologically dependent on vitamin B-12, and that a portion of our caveman predecessors diet’s consisted of animal products, we still, as fully-evolved, modern human beings, have a choice to THINK about what we eat and how it affects both our personal health, and more importantly, the world we all live in.

While these detractors are so quick to look at biology as their argument to eat meat, they never consider the concept of evolution, and more specifically, ethical and psychological evolution. To base a sound argument, in modern times, on a lifestyle practiced thousands of years ago is simply unpractical, and in regards to our environment and health, downright irresponsible. On top of that, it is actually a fallacious statement that Paelolithic humans thrived off a largely animal-based diet.

The theory that ALL “hunter-gatherer” societies thrive on a largely animal-based diet is simply not true. While the current fad of the Paleo diet has everyone believing that ancient human beings were thriving off mass quantities of meat, this was far from the case. Sure, cavemen ate meat, but they also captured and killed this meat themselves, and ate when they could. They were not carnivores, and even the term “omnivores” is not really an adequate description of their lifestyle: “opportunists” is a more fitting label. Cavemen ate whatever they could whenever they could.

The theory of this meat-centric Paleo diet is also largely based on a limited, Western perspective of Paleolithic times. It rarely considered that Paleothic people in different cultures consumed varied diets according to their local resources and geographical locations. As Katharine Milton observes in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the !Kung, a tribe in present day Africa, live in an almost ideal hunter-gatherer environment, yet thrive on a diet that consists of approximately 67% plant food, and only 33% animal foods. Similarly, Josh Vales shares in his article “8+ Reasons the Paleo Diet Should be Extinct” that observations of modern hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea show that large animals are only killed a few times in a hunters entire career, and that “an average days hunting of modern hunter-gatherer tribes in this region consists of one or two baby birds (not even half an ounce each), a few frogs, and a lot of mushrooms.” These thriving, modern hunter-gatherer societies certainly do not seem as meat-dependent as detractors of a plant-based diet would like to lead on. Sorry Paleo lovers.

The theory that we must continue to consume animal products as part of a biological disposition to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is completely at odds with our modern, Western society and drastically different way of life. While the cavemen would go through days of fasting to catch and kill the meat they consumed, modern man is able to, and often chooses to, walk into McDonalds several times a day and quickly consume an excess amount of processed “meat” paired with refined carbohydrates, containing an absurd amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, and empty calories.

The over consumption of processed, refined foods often results in morbid obesity, heart disease, depression, and irritable tendencies, and has been proven in recent studies to contribute to the progression of mental disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s: sounds like the traits of individuals who may like to argue, right?

While the argument can be made that supplementing Vitamin B-12 is “unnatural,” what is “natural” about the modern meat industry? For that matter, what is “natural” about our society as a whole? We walk down man-made sidewalks, pollute the air with automobiles as we drive down man-made round roads, and destroy our bodies, and the world around us, by consuming processed, industrialized man-altered “food.”

Even though  modern, industrialized meat is just about the most unnatural “food” possible, and the basis of emulating a “meat heavy, hunter gatherer” diet is historically inaccurate, but just for fun, let’s pretend that they are right. Let’s say that veganism is “unnatural” due to its reliance on vitamin B-12 supplementation- that an entirely raw, organic plant-based diet is unnatural because of the weekly inclusion of a synthesized vitamin.

Okay Paleo lovers and Ted Nugent advocates, you are right. Because of our supplementation of vitamin-B12, we are all “unnaturally” going against the grain of biology. Cool, you win, and you can certainly celebrate with an artery-clogging, super-manly Big Mac. But while you are stuffing your faces and lining corporate pockets, remember that we are adhering to a lifestyle that is NATURALLY the most beneficial to our planet and personal well-being.

Not to mention, the production of B-12 supplements are really not that “unnatural” anyway. B-12 is synthetized in laboratories by extracting its natural bacterial composition from micro-organisms.  As observed on vegansociety.com, “In choosing to use fortified foods or B-12 supplements, vegans are taking their B12 from the same source as every other animal on the planet – micro-organisms – without causing suffering to any sentient being or causing environmental damage.” Much like the plant-based diet itself, synthetized vitamin B-12 is innately extracted from an entirely pure source, and by choosing to consume the supplement in place of animal-derived products, you are saving natural resources as well as animals’ lives.

By choosing to eat organically grown, local produce, we are keeping small-scale farmers in business and enjoying the most nutritionally sound and pesticide-free food available, and by simply omitting the inclusion of meat with this local produce, we are saving an expediential amount of natural resources, and preventing a multitude of damage to our planet, ozone layer, and environment. Just one such example validating the vegan lifestyle’s ability to preserve natural resources, as shared by vegansociety.com, can be found in a study conducted by the University of Chicago. The study compared a typical U.S. meat-based diet with a vegan diet and found that the ‘typical’ U.S. diet generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tons more of carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet. The authors of the study concluded that it would be more environmentally effective to go vegan than to switch to a petrol electric hybrid car.[1]

Statistics and facts can be rehashed and reprinted all day, but for the sake of brevity, and the accessibility of free information, let’s keep it simple: by not eating meat you are making the world a better place! Be happy knowing that by enjoying a plant-based diet, you are making a great decision for yourself nutritionally and an even greater decision for your planet ethically. Eat your greens, remember your vitamins as needed, and reap the satisfaction of giving back to the planet that has given us everything we have.


Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin in New Scientist 17 December 2005, page 19. vegansociety.com. Web. 6  June 2012. 
Dylan Falduto

About Dylan Falduto

Dylan Falduto is a culture columnist who earned his bachelor of English from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. While competing as a professional mixed martial artist, Dylan began researching the benefits of plant-based nutrition and devoted himself to a vegan lifestyle in 2011. He is the founder of Street Narrative— an online culture column profiling individuals at the forefront of social issues, music, visual art, and extreme sports. Dylan lives in Chicago, IL, where he instructs special education middle school students, and performs in the punk rock band, Los Moruchos.

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3 Responses to “An Ethics-Based Diet: Quelling the Debate over Biology and Vitamin B-12”

  1. Dylan Falduto says:

    Hey Ryan,

    I am glad you adressed the the things you did, and I am also glad that you still enjoyed the article despite these concerns. Though I do not agree with your counter-argument, I respect your stance, and I can see that you have good intentions with your claims. I will do my best to clarify a few things, and I have provided sources for what you asked about.

    You Stated that, “While meat pushers and the supplement industry may insist that a plant based diet isn’t complete because meat/supplements are the only way to get b12, this simply isn’t so. B12 is still a widely debated topic in the nutritional field, and to ignore that and merely state meat/supplements are required is at best misleading, and at worst possibly just incorrect.”

    I will start by providing my highly reputable VEGAN source stating that supplementation is the only way to acquire this vitamin.

    “The only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements. Vitamin B12, whether in supplements, fortified foods, or animal products, comes from micro-organisms.”

    “B12 is the only vitamin that is not recognised as being reliably supplied from a varied wholefood, plant-based diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, together with exposure to sun. Many herbivorous mammals, including cattle and sheep, absorb B12 produced by bacteria in their own digestive system. B12 is found to some extent in soil and plants. These observations have led some vegans to suggest that B12 was an issue requiring no special attention, or even an elaborate hoax. Others have proposed specific foods, including spirulina, nori, tempeh, and barley grass, as suitable non-animal sources of B12. Such claims have not stood the test of time. ”

    “In over 60 years of vegan experimentation only B12 fortified foods and B12 supplements have proven themselves as reliable sources of B12, capable of supporting optimal health. It is very important that all vegans ensure they have an adequate intake of B12, from fortified foods or supplements. This will benefit our health and help to attract others to veganism through our example.”

    - The Vegan Society

    http://www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/nutrition/b12.aspx

    This is where I get the basis of what you call the “better safe than sorry” stance, and what I would call simple assurance. As an athlete who has put my body through the grind for the better part of my life, I feel it is very important to replenish vital nutritents lost in vigerous training, both pertaining to b12 as well as many other vitamins and minerals, and I supplemented vitamin b12 long before I made the decision to become a vegetarian, and shortly there after, a vegan.

    You say that stating the importance of supplementation is “at best misleading, and worst possibly just incorrect.” Well, I have had no intentions of misleading anyone with this article, and as for your statement that this is “possibly just incorrect,” I for one do not like to welcome more gambling into a life that is already very high stakes to begin with. If you are training day in and day out for a high level profesional competition-whether it be a basketball game, an olympic race, or in my case, a prize fight, do you want to take any chances or bet on “possibilities?”. If you put in the proper work- both in training as well as nutrition, why ever let doubts, assumptions, or possibilites enter your mind when you can have simple assurance, and a result of this assurance, complete confidence? Of course as human beings we all fail, and we all have the “possibility” to do so, but why should anyone waste precious mental and physical energy thinking about these possibilities? Why not strive to rise above them at all costs?

    In regards to “Getting tested first” why bother? Vitamin b-12 is non-toxic and imposssible to overdose on. Worse case scenario, any excessive ammount of the vitamin will be secreted in urine, on the flipside, a defenciency can lead to a myriad of problems.

    The point of my article is not to state that the case is 100% closed on the bio-availbilty of vitamin b-12 in plant sources and its accessibiltiy to human beings, nor it is it by any means advocating the consumption of meat, the much larger point is that none of that really matters if you are an ethical vegan, which I am, and I feel the vast majority of SunWarrior supporters are as well. I personally do not care if my lifestyle is “natural”,”unnatural,” embraced, or hated, because I know it is the right thing to do for the world I live in, and my own personal health and well being. This attitude and philosophy extends to everything else I do in life- not just my diet- whether it be competing as a prize fighter and being told I am barbaric or crazy for doing so when I am college educated, or playing in punk rock bands as a young kid, and being frowned upon by elitist musicians, I never cared what broader society thought about my decisions, and I never will.

    I would certainly welcome your research/sources that show valid evidence of naturally available vegan sources of b-12, and I am not saying you are wrong, but what I am saying is that in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t make a difference in my personal lifestyle or set of beliefs. I dedicated myself to this lifestyle to benefit the Earth and myself, and the concept in my article of “psychological and ethical evolution” is at the heart of this dedication. In our modern world, medicine, diet, transportation, agriculture, and just about everything else we do in life, have all been entirely transformed due to the advant of technology. Like it or not, our world is very, very unnatural; in my opinion, this is not an entirely bad thing. If we can use this technology, along with our own ethics and ingunity, to benefit our planet and every living being in it, then I think this is a wonderful thing.

    I hope this gives some clarity on the points adressed, as well as the basis for thesep points, and thank you again for your very well thought, and intelligent input.

    • Ryan says:

      “You say that stating the importance of supplementation is “at best misleading, and worst possibly just incorrect.” Well, I have had no intentions of misleading anyone with this article, and as for your statement that this is “possibly just incorrect,” I for one do not like to welcome more gambling into a life that is already very high stakes to begin with.”

      Not exactly, I said that simply stating that meat/supplements are necessary, period, is misleading. I know that was not your intention, and perhaps I should have put that differently. But in learning about and living a plant based lifestyle, enough to write an article on, I made the assumption that you had heard and read controversy on the subject of b12(and whether or not it is necessary for all plant based diet eaters). Early on you mention that the idea of humans being meant to abide by any one specific diet is debatable, I just felt the same respect and mentioning of that was important to apply to the components of those diets(in this case b12), merely than ‘pretend to agree, just for fun’.

      ” I for one do not like to welcome more gambling into a life that is already very high stakes to begin with. If you are training day in and day out for a high level profesional competition-whether it be a basketball game, an olympic race, or in my case, a prize fight, do you want to take any chances or bet on “possibilities?”. If you put in the proper work- both in training as well as nutrition, why ever let doubts, assumptions, or possibilites enter your mind when you can have simple assurance, and a result of this assurance, complete confidence? Of course as human beings we all fail, and we all have the “possibility” to do so, but why should anyone waste precious mental and physical energy thinking about these possibilities? Why not strive to rise above them at all costs?”

      Any time you step out your door(or even stay home too), you take a risk, that’s life. The reason to look further into matters is skepticism is how we progress, from making observations to forming hypothesis to coming to conclusions. If you don’t want to take any chances, you could be using pyramid power, harnessing crystals, and using astrology to gain insight on your upcoming fight. Sure these may not do any harm, but if you try every thing every person comes up with, you won’t have any time to eat right or train. Skepticism and research allows us to find out what really works, given time. Some not always for apparent reason(placebo is a very powerful force for example). There’s an obvious caveat, that spending all your time being skeptical and analyzing, researching, and processing every little thing will also leave no time for proper eating, training, and living. But being ‘properly skeptical’ should allow new ideas to be entered and processed while eventually weeding out things that don’t really work. Not saying you’re guilty of this of course(indeed I probably just typed this because I’m currently reading a book on skepticism), but being completely assured and having complete confidence doesn’t mean you’re not wrong(not that having those is necessarily bad; indeed most winners probably have complete confidence in their abilities). I just wanted to point out that while spending all your mental and physical energy on the possibilities is indeed a waste, not spending any time on it is equally fruitless.

      “In regards to “Getting tested first” why bother? Vitamin b-12 is non-toxic and imposssible to overdose on. Worse case scenario, any excessive ammount of the vitamin will be secreted in urine, on the flipside, a defenciency can lead to a myriad of problems.”

      An excellent question, and many would agree(in fact, to an extent, so do I). While there are a few more mediocre answers(waste, expense, byproducts in supplements[note, not saying these are real problems]), the important reason is absorption issues. In fact, that seems to be the real culprit in having low b12 levels, not a lack of consumption in the diet. If a person isn’t absorbing b12 properly, in many cases an oral supplement just isn’t effective(and worse, while blood serum levels are still the standard, they don’t appear to accurate in testing real deficiencies and oral supplements could make it appear a person is restoring their b12 levels when they actually aren’t). Getting properly tested could lead to this conclusion and getting b12 intramuscular injections, which they may need rather than dietary supplementation. While some research shows that oral supplements can be as effective, intramuscular injections still seem to be the ‘gold standard’ at this point for restoring low levels. I do wish I would have merely mentioned getting tested would be a good idea, as I do agree with the ‘better safe than sorry’ on this. And a lifetime of supplementation will likely be cheaper than a test(particularly if you already consume foods with it added, as opposed to following a raw diet and buying individual supplements).

      “The point of my article is not to state that the case is 100% closed on the bio-availbilty of vitamin b-12 in plant sources and its accessibiltiy to human beings, nor it is it by any means advocating the consumption of meat,”

      I know that, I merely brought up my points because one can gather that one must supplement and a plant based diet is unnatural. If we just shrug our shoulders to meat advocates and say maybe their right, someone looking around for the ‘best’ diet may come to the conclusion that since a plant diet is incomplete, they should look elsewhere.You do address this with “Okay Paleo lovers and Ted Nugent advocates, you are right. Because of our supplementation of vitamin-B12, we are all “unnaturally” going against the grain of biology. Cool, you win, and you can certainly celebrate with an artery-clogging, super-manly Big Mac. But while you are stuffing your faces and lining corporate pockets, remember that we are adhering to a lifestyle that is NATURALLY the most beneficial to our planet and personal well-being.” I just think that adding a possible explanation for the b12 deficiency may help.

      “I would certainly welcome your research/sources that show valid evidence of naturally available vegan sources of b-12, and I am not saying you are wrong, but what I am saying is that in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t make a difference in my personal lifestyle or set of beliefs.”

      Here’s one link: http://www.springerlink.com/content/m34328h82716261u/ navigating the internet for real data can be cumbersome as I’m sure you’re aware, and there’s scientists/nutritionists of every opinion and persuasion. The nutrition sciences are still in their infancy and there’s almost nothing matters are firmly closed on; as such coming to definite conclusions on much of anything is risky, and we can only do the best we can coming to conclusions on what data we have. I think the data shows a plant based diet is far superior to an animal based one, that being said I still can’t simply say ‘matter closed’ to a meat advocate, and for b12 the waters are murkier. And I know it doesn’t really make any difference to you, I completely understand. I do think though that having an additional arrow in the plant based quiver is good.

      ” Like it or not, our world is very, very unnatural; in my opinion, this is not an entirely bad thing. If we can use this technology, along with our own ethics and ingunity, to benefit our planet and every living being in it, then I think this is a wonderful thing..”

      Agreed, in fact, the modern state of the world may very well be responsible for b12 issues. Pollution and stress seem to deplete our b12 levels far more then they would otherwise be. It may even be possible that historically we did/could have derived all our b12 from plant sources, but in this day and age supplementation is necessary.

      I know the point of your article was ethics based, and really had nothing to do with inadequacies of the plant based diet and whether they are real or not. So it wasn’t really fair to challenge something you never actually proposed.

  2. Ryan says:

    While I certainly agree with the main point of the article(eating a plant based diet is better for both you and the environment), and pretty much the rest of it, I must disagree with the conclusion about b12. While meat pushers and the supplement industry may insist that a plant based diet isn’t complete because meat/supplements are the only way to get b12, this simply isn’t so. B12 is still a widely debated topic in the nutritional field, and to ignore that and merely state meat/supplements are required is at best misleading, and at worst possibly just incorrect. There are a number of studies showing that we can absorb b12 from plant based sources(by which I mean plants containing b12 producing bacteria), and not only is a large number of people(not just vegetarians and vegans) deficient, a meat containing diet may actually be more likely to be deficient. I haven’t yet seen a study done that concluded that humans are incapable of absorbing b12 when eaten from plants, so I would be very curious to read a link if you had one. I’m not saying supplementation is a bad idea(I would recommend getting properly tested first though), and I can understand the mantra of ‘better safe than sorry’; but I believe saying it’s necessary is perpetuating a myth.


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