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Your Healthy Diet May Need a Boost

With Americans shelling out more than $36 billion a year on vitamins and other supplements, you are more likely to hear about people taking more vitamins than they need rather than not getting enough.

Vitamin B12 is an exception.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), at least 40 percent of Americans are B12 deficient. This can even include people who religiously follow the USDA’s healthy plate recommendation for a nutritious diet: half vegetables and fruit and varying sizes of protein and grains alongside a serving of a low-fat or nonfat dairy product.

Aging and certain health conditions can make it difficult for the body to absorb all of the nutrients a well-balanced plate would otherwise provide. A vitamin B12 deficiency is an example of when it can be important to take a supplement.

What does vitamin B12 do?

Vitamin B12 is an essential ingredient for creating red blood cells, nerves and DNA. Some people don’t consume enough vitamin B12. Others can’t absorb enough from food, no matter how much they take in. Symptoms of deficiency include:

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands, legs or feet
  • Difficulty walking (staggering, balance problems)
  • Difficulty thinking and reasoning (cognitive difficulties) or memory loss
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Swollen, inflamed tongue
  • Yellowed skin (jaundice)
  • Paranoia or hallucinations

Who is at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency?

  • Many older adults. As a normal part of aging, the stomach doesn’t produce enough acid to absorb the vitamin B12 naturally present in food. People over the age of 50 may want to ask their health care provider if they should take a vitamin B12 supplement. These are water soluble and can be absorbed without stomach acid.
  • People who drink a lot of alcohol. High consumption of alcohol can damage the lining of the stomach, affecting acid production and absorption of vitamin B12.
  • People with pernicious anemia. Doctors usually treat pernicious anemia with vitamin B12 shots, although very high oral doses of vitamin B12 might also be effective.
  • People who have had weight loss surgery or who have digestive disorders such as celiac or Crohn’s disease. These can decrease the amount of vitamin B12 the body can absorb.
  • Vegetarians and vegans. Vitamin B12 occurs naturally in animal products: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and other dairy items. Vegetarians should eat breads, cereals and grains that have been fortified with B12.
  • People who take certain medications: Proton-pump inhibitors (Nexium, Prevacid), H2 blockers (Pepcid, Zantac) or the diabetes drug Metformin.

The good news is that a vitamin B12 deficiency can be easily treated. While serious deficiencies may require high-dose B12 pills or weekly injections, a standard multivitamin is usually enough for a milder deficiency.

A vitamin B12 deficiency can be easily confused for something else or just overlooked. Ask your health care provider if a B12 screening is right for you. Having your B12 level tested as part of your yearly checkup can help ensure that if you do have a deficiency it will be treated before it causes serious problems.

The LHSFNA offers a number of materials designed to help Laborers make healthy food choices. These include the Nutrition & Fitness for Laborers training manual and its accompanying Nutrition & Fitness for Laborers brochure. These and other health and safety materials are available through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue and can be ordered by going to and clicking on Publications.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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