Your Best Sources of Protein

Not sure what you should be reaching for post-workout? The folks at Runner's World want to give you a helping, recovery-heavy hand.

December 4, 2015
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Some sources of protein are better than others, and some forms of protein are more readily absorbed by the body. Here are some considerations when choosing your sources of protein:

Go for high quality. Aim to get the protein-rich foods with the most vitamins and minerals and the fewest saturated fats and other ingredients you don't need. Take ground beef. At 23 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving, a patty made of 90 percent lean ground beef goes a long way toward helping you hit your daily target for protein intake. But 50 percent of the calories in that serving of ground beef come from artery-clogging saturated or trans fats. So it's best not to make it a part of your everyday diet.

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Now consider a 3-ounce yellowfin tuna steak, which has 25 grams of protein and just ½ gram of unsaturated fat—with no saturated or trans fats. In this case, tuna is definitely going to be the healthier choice. Of course, just because a food is high in protein doesn't mean it should become a staple of every meal. 

Variety matters. Some protein sources are naturally "complete," which means they contain all nine essential amino acids your body needs but can't make on its own. You can find complete proteins in animal-based foods, such as steak, fish, pork, and dairy products (like milk, cottage cheese, and yogurts), as well as some vegetable-based sources like soy and quinoa. Other protein sources are considered "incomplete" because they don't contain all nine of the essential amino acids. They must be combined with other "complementary" foods to round out the amino acids and make a complete protein. Take red beans and rice: Eaten alone, the red beans are incomplete, but when eaten in combination with rice, the dish provides the amino acids you need to repair tissue and stave off injury. You don't have to worry about getting these so-called complementary proteins in the same meal. The body can pool nutrients throughout the day. So if one food is low in an essential amino acid, another will make up for it. As long as you accumulate a variety of complete and incomplete proteins throughout the day, you'll be all set. 

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Pick wholesome sources first. Proteins in some foods are easier for the body to use (or more "bioavailable") than others. In general, you want to try to get a majority of your protein from whole, unprocessed foods because these foods contain other nutrients your body needs. If you're too pressed for time or don't have access to a refrigerator or cooktop right after a run, you can find high-quality, bioavailable protein in certain protein bars and powders. Because protein is so critical to muscle repair and appetite regulation, it's better to grab a protein shake than to skip getting the post-workout protein altogether. However, when it comes to supplements, choose wisely. The quality of supplemental protein sources, such as protein shakes, is all over the place. If you're reaching for a protein shake, bar, or powdered supplement, here's what to look for:

• A Nutrition Facts panel: Packaged foods (such as bars, powders, and shakes), which are highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), must have Nutrition Facts panels. Supplements, which are not subject to FDA oversight, carry Supplement Facts panels. If a food carries a Nutrition Facts panel, you can rest assured you're getting a high-quality source of protein. Supplements don't need approval from the FDA before they're marketed. The manufacturer of the supplement is responsible for determining that it's safe, and the FDA doesn't test a supplement before it hits store shelves. Also, supplement companies don't have to provide any evidence that their supplement is safe (unless the supplement contains an ingredient that is new to the United States). Plus, once a supplement is on store shelves, it will continue to be sold—even if it's completely ineffective and a waste of money—unless it's proven that its claims are false or unsafe. This is not to say that all supplements are unsafe or ineffective; they are not. Many products can be a healthy part of your diet. They're just not subject to the same legal oversight as foods are. Regardless of whether you choose a protein supplement labeled with a Nutrition Facts panel or a Supplement Facts panel, choose one that has undergone third-party testing. Look for products that are certified free of banned substances or certified by NSF, a public health and safety organization.

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• Whey, casein, and soy: Choose a supplement whose protein is derived from a high-quality source such as whey, casein, or soy—or a blend of all three. Whey, which is derived from milk, is digested quickly and rapidly and assists muscle repair and recovery. Casein, also derived from milk, is digested more slowly, so it keeps you feeling full and assists with muscle repair and maintenance for a few hours after you consume it. Soy is digested a little more quickly than casein but a little more slowly than whey and is ideal if you're seeking a vegetarian source of protein. If you're a vegetarian, you might also try pea protein. Other types of vegetarian proteins are widely available. In addition to being vegan friendly, pea protein is nearly "complete," so it provides nearly all the amino acids you need for muscle repair. It's also not a risk for anyone with food allergies, is generally less expensive than sources of animal protein, and is high in arginine, which assists with blood flow.

Adapted from Runner's World Run to Lose