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Vitamin B12 doesn’t garner as much attention as its nutritional counterparts, yet it plays a critical role in keeping you healthy. “This B vitamin helps maintain optimal red blood cell formation and color,” says Kristine Clark, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and director of sports nutrition at Penn State University in University Park. It also is integral in the making of DNA, the genetic material found in all cells.
Your body can store several years’ worth of B12 in its liver. But up to 15 percent of Americans either don’t get enough of the nutrient in their diets or their bodies don’t absorb it well. People who are low in vitamin B12 are at risk for a form of anemia called megaloblastic that causes muscle weakness and fatigue. The nervous system can be affected leading to numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Other symptoms can range from mild (constipation, decreased appetite and weight loss) to severe (depression, paranoia, delusions, memory loss, confusion, poor balance and incontinence).
Those most in need of a B12 boost either through foods or dietary supplements include adults age 50 and older (decreased stomach acid impedes vitamin absorption); vegetarians (meats are the only foods that naturally contain B12); and people who have a digestive disorder such as celiac or Crohn’s disease or who have undergone weight loss surgery (these decrease the body’s ability to extract and absorb the vitamin). Some people have pernicious anemia or an inability to make the intrinsic factor needed to absorb the vitamin. They must get B12 injections from their doctors.
The good news is that you can get the recommended 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of daily vitamin B12 by eating a variety of foods or via a multivitamin. Beef liver and clams contain the highest levels. But if those don’t appeal to your taste buds, try these other vitamin B12-rich foods:
- Fish (trout, salmon and canned tuna contain the highest amounts)
- Red meat
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt
- Fortified breakfast cereals and breads (check the nutrition label)
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.