Why is vitamin B12 so important?

Vitamin B12 is otherwise known as cobalamin because it’s the only vitamin that contains the essential mineral, cobalt. It was first isolated from liver extract in the late 1940s and was found to be the answer to a very serious condition called pernicious anaemia. Thankfully this fairly rare condition can now be identified much earlier. However, deficiency of vitamin B12 is still remarkably common.

Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her thoughts on vitamin B12.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

Vitamin B12 is key to the healthy production of red blood cells and the myelin sheath around nerve cells, hence it’s important for nerve function. B12 also works with folic acid (vitamin B9) in many body processes. Indeed, a deficiency of either nutrient can often be masked by the other, hence if a blood test is taken, it should involve both vitamins.

Side profile of a person higlighting their brain functioning

Importantly, vitamin B12 is known as a methyl donor, which carries and donates methyl groups (carbon and hydrogen molecules) to cell membranes and brain neurotransmitters. It’s a positive chemical reaction, one of its main roles being the metabolism of homocysteine. This is an amino acid produced in the body, high levels of which can potentially cause an array of health issues. Vitamin B12 is also involved with energy metabolism and immune function, so as you can see it’s pretty important!

WHERE CAN I GET IT FROM?

Unlike other water-soluble nutrients (such as other B-vitamins), B12 is stored in the liver, kidneys and other body tissues, but obviously only if there’s some available in the diet. Absorption is also dependent on having sufficient hydrochloric acid in the stomach which reduces as we get older. It is also thought that the beneficial bacteria naturally living in the gut, may produce some vitamin B12; research is very unclear though as to how much can actually be utilised. Plus, it’s likely that the good gut flora needs to be in tip-top condition for this process to take place, and many people have an imbalance in this area.

A range of foods containing Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal produce, including offal (liver and kidneys), eggs, fish, cheese and meat. There may be some found in fermented sources such as sea vegetables and tempeh. But although vegans are often told that fermented foods, including miso and tofu, are good sources, there’s a big question mark about whether it’s in the form the body can utilise. Therefore fermented foods are certainly not a reliable source of vitamin B12.

In short, animal products are the only assured source which means that vegans are highly likely to be deficient unless they’re taking a supplement.

TEN FOODS HIGH IN B12

Foods containing Vitamin B12

Many people shy away from liver because the taste is too strong. However, the flavour of chicken livers is much more subtle and they’re great served warm with a salad, as a quick and delicious midweek meal. For a good contrast of flavours, mix salad leaves with some chopped hazelnuts and goat’s cheese. The chicken livers can be quickly fried (a couple of minutes per side) sprinkled with herbs and a little paprika and served immediately.

Cooked chicken livers

 HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE A DEFICIENCY?

We know the body can store some vitamin B12, so a deficiency can sometimes take a while to come to light and then symptoms may be slightly vague and non-specific.

Deficiency may cause extreme tiredness, plus nerve function can be off-balance triggering ‘pins and needles’, numbness or a burning feeling anywhere in the body. Low mood, lack of concentration and depression are also commonplace. More dramatic symptoms leading up to pernicious anaemia are likely to be persistent diarrhoea and a very red, inflamed tongue, but this is uncommon.

WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Deficiency of vitamin B12 is often down to poor absorption and low dietary intake. The likelihood of deficiency also increases with age as digestive issues become enhanced. Plus, anyone with poor digestion is much more likely to have a deficiency. The good news is that by either increasing the amount you eat in the diet or taking a supplement containing vitamin B12, you can be sure you’re getting enough of this essential vitamin.

 FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

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Brain Nutrition: the top 5 foods to eat for a sharper brain

A plate with a picture of a brain on to represent eating healthily to support a sharper brain

Many of us struggle with poor memory or lack of concentration from time-to-time, and for some, more frequently. Whilst the brain will always show signs of ageing, generally from age 50, we’d all like some extra brain power, whatever our age!

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares her top five foods to give your brain that extra boost.

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EGGS

Eggs are not only an all-round superfood, they’re rich in choline, a member of the family of B-vitamins. Choline’s main ‘claim-to-fame’ is that it helps make acetylcholine, the brain’s key memory transmitter. Importantly, a deficiency of this nutrient could be the single most common cause for a declining memory.

One large egg contains around 300 mg of choline. Choline has two major functions; it’s needed for the structure of brain cells, plus the production of acetylcholine. The human body can make some choline in the liver, but it’s not usually sufficient to make healthy brain cells, hence it’s needed regularly in the diet.

A topped boiled egg in an egg cup

Eggs are also a great source of protein, containing the full profile of amino acids. Having an egg-based breakfast will help keep blood sugar levels in balance throughout the day and this will also keep your brain in sharp focus.

OILY FISH

Oily fish is rich in brain-loving omega-3 fats. These fats are key for good brain health because they’re part of the myelin sheath within the brain structure and are also needed to make those all-important neurotransmitters. The best fish to eat are primarily cold water ones that consume other fish! This means herring, mackerel, salmon and tuna. Try to include some oily fish in your diet around three times a week.

A whole cooked fish to represent healthy omega 3 fats

If you’re vegetarian, then you don’t need to miss out. Flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts are great sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a key omega fat which the body converts into the most active form being EPA (rich in fish). So the brain will still get what it needs.

BANANAS

This perfect, conveniently wrapped fruit is high in vitamin B6, which is another nutrient that’s essential for the production of those essential neurotransmitters. It’s no coincidence that bananas are a popular weaning food for babies, maybe for this reason. Plus, of course, they’re easy to digest (when fully ripe).

Porridge topped with bananas and blueberries

The brain needs a constant supply of certain nutrients to keep these neurotransmitters ‘firing’ and sending messages between cells. Several B-vitamins, and in particular B6, also encourage the production of acetylcholine as well as keeping nerves healthy.

Bananas are one of the easiest foods to incorporate into the diet because they’re so transportable but also versatile in dishes. They’re also a great start to the day on top of your morning oats with some natural yoghurt.

AVOCADOS

We know that the brain contains lots of fats, which are key to its make-up. However, this makes the brain susceptible to attack from damaging free radicals. If not stopped in their tracks, free radicals can cause damage throughout the body, particularly to nerves, which will inevitably impact on brain function.

The good news is that nature has provided a wealth of foods containing protective nutrients. Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant found in avocados, works in partnership with vitamin C in the antioxidant department. Interestingly, people with good blood levels of antioxidants may do better in memory tests!

Avocado on rye toast showing healthy breakfast

Whilst some people shy away from avocados because of their higher calorie load, the benefits of including one in your diet, three times a week, far outweighs any negatives. They’re particularly delicious with prawns, in salads, smashed on toast with eggs for breakfast, or with bacon and grilled chicken.

PEAS

The humble pea is rich in folic acid, which works alongside vitamin B6 in helping produce the brain’s neurotransmitters. Plus, they’re so versatile and tasty too! They’re a good source of protein and fibre, helping to keep blood sugar levels in good balance and therefore, the brain in great working order.

a bowl of fresh peas and pea pods on a table

Peas are a very popular frozen vegetable because they’re so quick and easy to add to a meal. The freezing process can actually retain more of their nutrient content because they’re frozen quickly after harvesting, so don’t worry that these frozen vegetables are any less nutritious than fresh ones. They will also certainly contain less starch. We tend to forget that peas also come in the form of mange tout or the sugar snap variety, which are both equally great for the brain.

So add some of these brain-boosters to your diet this season and stay sharp!

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Protein essentials: why you need it and how to get it!

Protein is an essential part of our daily diet, alongside fats and carbohydrates. It plays an important role is so many body functions but often we do not consume enough.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, looks at why protein is so important and some great options for vegetarians!

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

WHY IS IT ESSENTIAL?

Protein is an essential part of nutrition, second only to water in terms of the body’s physical make up. Protein makes up around 20% of our body weight and is found in muscles, hair, nails, skin and internal organs, particularly the heart and brain.

Protein plays a key role in the immune system, helping to form antibodies that fight infection, as well as supporting many hormones and enzyme reactions.  It’s certainly essential for growth and development, therefore is especially important during pregnancy and childhood.

Proteins are actually comprised of amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids that the body cannot make, therefore these need to be eaten in the diet: we can become deficient if the diet does not contain the proteins, vitamins, minerals or enzymes needed to produce each one.  The good news is that with a healthy, balanced diet these deficiencies can be avoided.

WHAT MAKES A ‘BALANCED’ DIET?

In general terms, a balanced diet is one that incorporates sufficient levels of all essential nutrients including amino acids.  Put simply, people who eat a predominantly non-vegetarian diet don’t need to worry about specific amino acids; meat, dairy, eggs and fish have varying amounts of each one but all contain some of the essential amino acids.

Pescatarians (people who don’t eat meat, but eat fish and other animal-sourced foods) will also be getting what they need, with a balance of food groups.  People who eat no animal foods at all (known as vegans) should combine grains and pulses to ensure the body is getting what it needs.  However, certain vitamins, specifically vitamin B12, is only found in animal products, so supplementation would be advisable.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I EAT PROTEIN?

Ideally protein is needed at every meal and thankfully nature has made that task a little easier by providing so many options!  Meat, dairy, chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, soya, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds provide an abundance of options for every individual requirement.

It’s important to include protein at every meal, primarily to ensure sufficient total intake but also to help balance blood sugar levels and keep energy sustained throughout the day.

HOW MUCH DO I NEED?

That question is not quite so easy to answer!  It’s generally dependent on body weight.  A man will normally require more than a woman but a good rule is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.  This means a woman weighing 60 kilos will need around 48 grams of protein per day as a minimum.  As an example, a normal sized chicken breast will contain around 20 grams of protein. Those working in more strenuous manual jobs will require more protein, as will athletes (including recreational athletes).

Interestingly, many women worry that eating too much protein will cause them to ‘bulk up’. Whilst there may be body-builders who are likely to over-consume protein, generally the highly refined Western diet is still more likely to contain too little protein.  This can lead to muscle wastage, hormone imbalances and lack of blood sugar control, so ensuring you are getting enough really is essential for a healthy body.

WHAT ABOUT VEGETARIAN SOURCES?

There are a number of excellent sources of vegetarian protein.  Grains come in many different guises; wheat, rye, oats, corn, barley, bulgur wheat spelt, millet and rice are the main ones. Quinoa looks like a grain but is technically a seed, but it’s still an excellent source of protein containing all the essential amino acids.

Soy products including natto, tofu and tempeh are great fermented forms of protein and also deliver other excellent benefits for the digestive system.  Nuts, seeds and all types of beans also have good amounts of certain amino acids.  Combine them with a grain and you’ve got a full house!

Hopefully these ideas for including more protein in your diet will ensure you are maximising your get-up-and-go every day!

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

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Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit Herbfacts