DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am in very good health, but have had an annoying muscle ache after a strain that has been slow to heal. Workout friends tell me that this may be due to the fact that I do not eat red meat. Could this be true? Is there anything I should supplement my diet with, to compensate? -- V.E., Santa Clara, California
DEAR V.E.: Good nutrition is good nutrition, regardless of whether you eat red meat. You did not mention whether you consume other animal products, but if yours is a vegetarian or vegan regimen, there are a few nutrients that you may need to pay extra attention to. These include protein, vitamin B-12, calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin D.
In most cases, protein doesn't represent a special problem. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and of the 22 different amino acids, our body can manufacture all but nine. These nine, referred to as the essential amino acids (EAAs), need to be supplied by our diet. Most foods contain some amino acids. Animal proteins, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, are considered "complete proteins" because they contain all nine EAAs.
Except for soybeans, vegetable proteins such as grains and legumes are incomplete proteins because they lack one or more of the EAAs. Vegans can easily meet their daily protein requirement by combining different foods so that sufficient amounts of all the EAAs are consumed during the day.
One nutrient that may be a potential problem is vitamin B-12. It's needed for red blood cells and nerve tissue, and is only found in bacteria and animal products. Vegetarians can use specially fermented soy products, such as tempeh or miso, as a dietary source of B-12, or rely on foods fortified with it.
If you consume dairy, you shouldn't have a problem getting enough calcium, but if you are a strict vegan, you will have to rely on other calcium-rich foods. These include broccoli, dark-green leafy vegetables (such as kale and turnip greens), almonds, figs, some legumes, calcium-set tofu and calcium-fortified drinks (such as soy milk and orange juice).
Red meat is an excellent source of iron, but it can also be found in dark-green leafy vegetables, legumes, raisins and prunes. Iron absorption is facilitated by acidic foods, such as citrus juices, and vitamin C. Zinc, which can also be in short supply without red meat, is found in nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes.
Vitamin D, needed for calcium absorption and bone formation, is another nutrient that's not widely available in vegan cuisine. Besides food sources such as fish and vitamin D-fortified milk products, the body produces this nutrient upon exposure to direct sunlight. Again, the alternative is to rely on a fortified food or a supplement. See tinyurl.com/hpqpavn for more tips on vegetarian eating.
Finally, you might consider seeing a physical therapist for your persistent muscle ache. Your physician may be able to provide a referral. A therapist can make sure that your current activities aren't preventing healing or even making thing worse, and provide specific exercises to help strengthen the affected muscles.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.