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People With Special Protein Needs continued...

Athletes. Most sports involve physically breaking down muscle during the activity and repairing it afterward. So the protein needs of active people are influenced by the length, frequency, and intensity of their workouts. Endurance athletes such as marathoners need about 50% more protein than a sedentary person, says sports dietitian Josephine Conolly-Schoonen, MS, RD, on Medscape Today. Body Builders might need twice as much protein as a sedentary person. But it's important to remember than most Americans, including athletes, get plenty of protein in their regular diet, and do not need protein supplements.  

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.

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