As a parent, you’ve probably got 101 things on your mind when it comes to your kids. So many things, in fact, that thinking about whether your children are getting enough vitamin B12 may not even be on your radar.
So, we’re going to do the leg work for you in today’s blog and share why B12 is important, how to help ensure your kids are getting enough of it in their diet, and what to do if they’re not.
There is no question that vitamins and minerals are essential for the growth and development of children. Vitamin B12 is no exception. It is a water-soluble vitamin that has a crucial role in the formation of red blood cells, DNA synthesis, and proper functioning of the nervous system.
What’s more, it’s not a vitamin that your body manufactures on its own, so you’ll need to be on the lookout for ways to help your kids get this essential vitamin through their diet, including dietary supplements if warranted.
Sources of B12 in Kids’ Diets
If your child likes meat and fish, it may not be difficult to get enough vitamin B12 from diet alone. However, if you’re raising your child as a vegetarian or vegan, or if you’ve got one who’s a picky eater, craving tater tots and more tater tots, it could make meeting daily B12 requirements more difficult—but still not impossible. Read on.
There are three main categories of food that are rich in B12 and two additional categories to consider. Let’s break those categories down now and look at sources of B12.
1. Animal products—this category covers those foods for which vitamin B12 is naturally present, including meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Here are some of the foods in this category that are rich in B12: beef liver (perhaps not your child’s favorite choice?), clams, salmon, tuna, ground beef (burgers anyone?), chicken and turkey breast. Also, eggs—likely a popular kid-food.
2. Dairy products—milk, yogurt and cheese also contain good amounts of vitamin B12. Because ice cream contains milk, this tasty dessert can add to your children’s vitamin B12 intake—in moderation, please.
3. Plant-based products—This is a tough one because there aren’t a lot of plants that are good sources of naturally occurring vitamin B12. Here are a few: plant-based meat alternatives (including some veggie burgers), nori seaweed (an algae product also called purple laver), tempeh (a plant-based food generally made from soybeans), and mushrooms (such as shitake or cremini) contain B12 but not in high quantities. Read more here.
According to the Vegan Society, the only reliable sources of B12 are fortified (with B12) foods and B12 supplements. Let’s talk about those options.
4. Fortified foods—by adding micronutrients to conventional food, fortified foods can be a rich, highly bioavailable source of B12, including for vegetarians and vegans. One example of these foods is breakfast cereal—but be sure to check the label as not all fortified breakfast cereals are fortified equally. Another example is fortified nutritional yeast, which can be sprinkled over salads, pasta, in soups, on toast and even to top off veggies for a savory, nutty, cheesy flavor. You can also bake with nutritional yeast to add flavor—but note that it doesn’t replace active yeast.
5. Dietary supplements—if you’re finding that your children just aren’t getting enough vitamin B12 from diet alone, talk to your pediatrician or other doctor about whether adding supplements is the right choice. You can find single-supplement B12 vitamins, but multivitamins or vitamin B complex are also good choices. And there are vegetarian or vegan options available in supplements. Always check the label and don’t give more than recommended to your child.
Here’s something else to know for baby moms and moms-to-be. Breast milk (and formula milk) will usually provide your child with vitamin B12, and yes, your child needs vitamin B12 from birth on. Actually, even before birth. it’s helpful for your child to get B12 during your pregnancy. Not only does B12 in utero (in combination with folate, another B vitamin) help prevent neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida, but it is also critical for brain and spine development. Read more here and here. (And by the way, tater tots don’t contain any B12.)
When it Comes to Vitamin B12, How Much is Recommended?
So, how much vitamin B12 intake does your child actually need? The good news is that with the right foods—and the right supplements—for most kids, it won’t be difficult to get enough vitamin B12.
Here’s what the government recommends children need as an average daily recommended amount of vitamin B12:
- From birth through 6 months, 0.4 mcg
- Infants ages 7-12 months, 0.5 mcg
- Children ages 1-3 years, 0.9 mcg
- Children ages 4-8 years, 1.2 mcg
- Children ages 9-13 years, 1.8 mcg
- Teens ages 14-18 years, 2.4 mcg
- Pregnant or breastfeeding teens, 2.6 mcg and 2.8 mcg, respectively
To put that in perspective, let’s look at a few foods that contain this essential vitamin. For example, 3 ounces of cooked Atlantic salmon contains 2.6 mcg of vitamin B12, while 3 ounces of ground beef, pan-fried, offers 2.4 mcg. One large, whole cooked egg has 0.5 mcg as does 1.5 ounces of cheddar cheese. One cup of milk includes 1.3 mcg and some fortified breakfast cereals boast 0.6 mcg. A half cup of tempeh contains 0.1 mcg vitamin B12. Read more here or here.
You’ll see that reaching the recommendations isn’t all that difficult. And yet, it is still possible that your child could have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
How Do You Know if Your Child is Vitamin B12 Deficient?
Low levels of vitamin B12 can start during pregnancy, if (and not to guilt trip you) the mom-to-be has low vitamin B12 levels while carrying her fetus. Picky eaters, vegetarians and vegans, that are not getting what they need from food alone and for whatever reason are not supplementing with B12 can also run into a problem. The good news here, however, is that very often, changing up the diet or adding a supplement can relatively quickly reverse a B12 deficiency.
However, there are other reasons beyond diet as to why your child might develop a B12 deficiency. Certain medical conditions—such as gastritis, celiac and Crohn’s disease—can make it difficult for the body to fully absorb vitamin B12. Megaloblastic anemia could be another reason for deficiency. Read more here.
As this article explains, the symptoms for a B12 deficiency are not specific to B12 deficiency alone, but instead are generic and could be caused by other issues. Some symptoms of B12 deficiency include:
- Extreme fatigue or being tired
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Ongoing diarrhea or constipation
- Swollen tongue
If your child experiences these symptoms or other symptoms involving delays in developmental milestones (e.g., they’re not sitting, crawling, walking or talking in an expected timeframe), you’ll want to talk with your doctor. And while B12 deficiency may or may not be the cause, it’s certainly worth asking specifically if it is.
Should My Child Be Tested for B12 Deficiency?
Normally, this is where we’d tell you that testing to determine vitamin B12 status is the way to go. And that still might be the case. However, start with a discussion with your (child’s) doctor about the types of tests available. For example, tests include a routine blood test to determine a complete blood count (CBC), or B12 serum tests, or a test for methylmalonic acid in urine, the latter being one of the most common ways to test for vitamin B12 deficiency or vitamin B12 insufficiency in adults.
Bottom line: If you suspect your child might have a vitamin B12 deficiency, or any vitamin deficiency for that matter, it’s best to talk to with a doctor first about whether a test is appropriate, and if so, which type.