Protein Power

But don't toss aside options like beef or pork. Red meat is a great source of B vitamins, which are critical for assisting with the conversion of carbohydrates, fats and proteins into fuel; iron for building blood and moving oxygen around the body; and zinc to protect everything from muscles to the immune system.

Choose lower-fat cuts like eye round roast, sirloin tip side, top or bottom round roast and top sirloin; all contain less than 5 grams total fat per 3-ounce serving. These cuts are just as lean as some white meats. Game meats such as bison and ostrich offer protein-rich meat alternatives low in fat, too.

However, be sure to exercise caution if you have a family history of heart disease; then limit your red meat intake to less than twice a week. Research also suggests that postmenopausal women who consume more than 57 grams (about 8 ounces) of red meat daily, especially from bacon, sausage and ham, have a more than 50 percent greater risk of breast cancer than those who don't. While statistically younger, premenopausal women might not have as great a risk, they are still discouraged from consuming high fat meats on a daily basis. Chicken and fish are usually the safest bets, with skinless and mercury-free as the best choices. But for the best protein pick, choose egg whites and other foods with the highest PDCAAS score.

Vegetarian Solutions

The American Dietetic Association states that an appropriately planned vegetarian diet is nutritionally adequate and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Still, one of the biggest dilemmas is how to incorporate adequate protein into the diet.

While vegetarian runners have been shown to have lower body mass indexes (BMI), as well as lower risks for diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, it's essential that females don't miss out on key nutrients found in animal protein sources they need.

It's critical to understand that protein-containing foods are grouped as either complete or incomplete. Complete proteins, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese, contain all nine essential amino acids. In contrast, incomplete proteins like beans, nuts and grains lack one or more of the essential amino acids.

The good news is that plant proteins can be combined to provide all of the essential amino acids, forming a complete protein. For female runners, finding the right combination is crucial. Vitamins B-12, iron and calcium are often missing from the stricter vegetarian's diet, and this deficit can lead to lethargy, anemia, poor running and delayed recovery.

According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, spinach, mushrooms, dried beans and fortified cereal are all good sources of iron. Up your iron intake even further when you cook with iron cookware or ingest iron proteins with vitamin-C rich foods, which make the protein more readily accessible. Turn to broccoli, fortified tofu and low-fat dairy for your calcium, and eggs for your B-12 boost.

The Soy Debate

While most plant proteins are not complete sources of essential amino acids--the building blocks of protein that must be supplied daily to meet all the body's needs--soy protein is actually as complete as a steak. Whole soy protein is a rich source of all the essential amino acids, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and research has shown that its phytonutrient component has the ability to prevent heart disease and cancer risk in some individuals.

In addition, because soy-based food is typically lower in saturated fat than most animal proteins, it's a great choice to boost heart health. However, some research suggests that consuming excess soy may produce harmful effects, but the FDA notes these concerns stem from soy isoflavones, not from consumption of the whole food. Our take? The jury is still out on this one, so we'll enjoy our soy in moderation.

Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, is a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition and is the director of sports nutrition and performance for the University of Miami, where she's an adjunct professor. Her books, The Tropical Diet and The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide are available at

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