DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years. Lately I have been having problems with muscle discomfort in my shoulder, and some people have been telling me that it might not be healing correctly because I do not eat red meat. I don’t buy this at all, but was wondering: Is there anything I should supplement my diet with, since I no longer eat red meat? -- K., San Diego
DEAR K.: A plant-based, whole-foods diet is the way to go, and good nutrition is good nutrition, whether or not there’s ever meat on the plate. You did not mention whether you consume other animal products, but if you eat vegetarian, there are some nutrients you should be mindful of. These include vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin D.
In most cases, getting adequate protein doesn’t represent any problem for vegetarians. 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 the EAAs.
Except for soybeans, vegetable proteins such as grains and legumes are incomplete proteins because they lack one or more of the EAAs. Vegetarians easily meet their daily protein requirement by combining different foods so that sufficient amounts of all the EAAs are consumed over the course of the day.
Vitamin B12 is needed for red blood cells and nerve tissue, and it is only found in bacteria and animal foods. Vegetarians can use specially fermented soy products, such as tempeh or miso, as a dietary source for B12, or rely on foods fortified with it.
If you consume dairy products, there shouldn’t be a problem getting enough calcium. If not, you will have to rely on calcium-rich foods such as broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale and turnip greens), calcium-set tofu, almonds, figs and some legumes. There is also the growing variety of calcium-fortified non-dairy milks, and fortified orange juice.
Red meat is an excellent source of iron, but it is also found in dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, raisins and prunes. Iron absorption is facilitated by acidic foods, such as citrus juices. Zinc, which can also be in short supply for vegetarians, can be 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 vegetarian cuisine. Besides food sources such as fish and fortified milk products, the body produces this nutrient upon exposure to direct sunlight. An alternative is to rely on a supplement.
Back to your question about that muscle problem that is not healing: Your physician or health professional may have done routine blood work, and this can help verify if there are indications of a nutritional deficiency. You might also consider getting a referral to a physical therapist, who might help with specific strategies and exercises to help strengthen the affected muscle and get that discomfort into the history books.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.