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People With Special Protein Needs continued...

Dieters. When shedding pounds sensibly, the goal is to lose body fat but maintain lean muscle mass. Protein helps you do that. Protein foods tend to be more filling, so they delay hunger, making it easier to stick with your weight-loss program. Just keep an eye on the calories and portion sizes of your protein choices when including them in meals and snacks.

Vegetarians. When counseling vegetarians, Antonucci finds out which protein foods -- meat, fish, eggs, or dairy -- are being included or excluded from the diet. As long as vegetarians are eating a variety of healthy foods, they should be able to get the recommended amount of protein from sources other than meat.

Vegans. People who don't eat any animal products depend on beans, dried peas, and whole grains as their main sources of protein. Vegetables, nuts, and seeds also contain small amounts of it. Vegans can meet their protein needs, but it takes careful planning and may require more food to do so.

The Best Food Sources

"I encourage people to choose lean forms of protein, that way it has minimal extra baggage like fat," Bonci says. Lean animal sources include red meat with less marbling, poultry without skin, nonfat or low-fat dairy products, and fish.

She's also a fan of soy foods -- tofu, edamame (green soybeans), roasted soy nuts, and meat substitutes like veggie burgers or crumbles.

Most people benefit from eating less processed protein, such as bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats, and are better off eating beans and fish a few times a week, suggests Antonucci. "Beans and whole grains are some of the healthiest foods on the planet and they're cheap, filling, and easy to make," she says.

From black beans and garbanzos to lentils and split peas, plant proteins can be used in soups, chili, spreads, and Mexican dishes. As for whole grains, three protein-rich grains are quinoa, spelt, and amaranth.

Unlike animal protein, most plant-based proteins are "incomplete," meaning they lack some amino acid building blocks. By combining plant proteins, such as rice and beans or hummus on pita bread, they become "complete" with all the essential amino acids found in animal protein. Eat different plant proteins anytime during the day. They don't need to be eaten in the same meal.

Tips for Not Going Overboard With Protein

Protein servings of meat, poultry, or fish, should be the size and thickness of the palm of your hand, suggests Antonucci. That's about a 3-ounce portion. She suggests that meat eaters eat no more than two palm-sized servings of meat a day to get enough -- but not too much -- protein. 

To look at it another way, protein should take up no more than one-third of your plate at meals, whether it's in a form you can drink or chew, suggests Bonci. She recommends including small amounts of protein foods at every meal to spread your intake evenly throughout the day.

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