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The 5 Best Budget-Friendly Proteins for Athletes

When it comes to nutrition and affordability, the price is right for these protein-rich foods.


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If you are feeling more pain at the supermarket checkout these days, you’re not alone. A majority of U.S. shoppers say their dough isn’t stretching far enough, and grocery costs are now a top concern among many Americans.

Things can get even pricier when you consider the extra nutritional needs of athletes, which includes eating more protein to support training. Without question, dietary protein is crucial and not something to skimp on. But high-protein foods can also be some of the most expensive additions to a shopping cart – a hunk of steak is going to hit your wallet much harder than a loaf of bread.

While some protein sources can be costly, there are also affordable animal and plant-based protein options to suit every dietary need. You just have to know where to look and how to use them. Start with these 5 healthy protein sources that will fuel your athletic body without breaking the bank.

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Mussels

We are often told that we should be eating more seafood, especially if it replaces some of the red meat in our diets. But a trip to the fish counter can certainly take a big bite out of your food budget – wild salmon, halibut and scallops aren’t cheap. That’s why it’s good to know that at only about $3 a pound, mussels can provide a huge nutritional bang for your buck.

Also known as “the poor man’s oyster,” mussels are low in calories and high in protein, coming in at 20 grams in each 3 ounces cooked. The briny gifts of the sea also supply excellent amounts of iron, an essential mineral for delivering oxygen to your working muscles; phosphorus for bone health; selenium for better brain functioning; heart healthy omega-3 fats; and strikingly high amounts of vitamin B12.

While the vast majority of mussels on sale at the seafood counter are farmed, their farming is an excellent example of aquaculture done right. Unlike farmed salmon and shrimp, mussels require no supplemental feed, they filter water to make it cleaner, and require few (if any) chemicals to keep diseases at bay. In fact, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program awards farmed mussels a Best Choice as one of the most environmentally friendly animal-based protein sources on the market.

Even the most culinary-challenged can put a plate of perfectly cooked mussels on the table in a flash. Simply place them in a large saucepan along with a cup or two of simmering liquid (which could be anything from broth to canned tomatoes to coconut milk to wine) then simmer until they pop open, discarding any that remain shut. There are plenty of recipes out there for more fanciful preparations, should you be inspired to get creative in the kitchen.

RELATED: 5 Reasons You Should Eat More Fish

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Tofu

At 3 to 4 bucks for a block, tofu is certainly a plant-based protein that won’t drain your bank account. While the wobbly blocks made from boiled, curdled, and pressed soybean milk were once loathed by most Americans as health food gone wrong, most smart athletes today have gotten smart to the fact that iit’s an inexpensive and versatile source of plant protein (about 15 grams in a quarter block) and other nutritional virtues.

While there is a lot of rhetoric about the dangers of eating soy for human health, this is almost exclusively based on pseudoscience or studies conducted on animals where they were exposed to amounts of compounds in soy that no normal diet would provide. Better research has linked consumption of soy foods like tofu with health benefits including lowering blood pressureimproved cholesterol numbers and potentially lessening the risk of certain cancers like breast and prostate. Plant compounds in soy called isoflavones as well as something specific about soy protein itself could be behind many of soy’s health-promoting powers.

It’s worth noting that tofu provides a nice range of all the essential amino acids required to build muscle. Depending on the coagulant used during production such as magnesium chloride (called nigari) or calcium sulfate, tofu also supplies good amounts of these minerals. One study found that the bioavailability of calcium from tofu is the same as milk. A block of tofu also offers up a range of other essential minerals including iron, phosphorus, manganese and selenium, not to mention alpha-linolenic acid, the essential omega-3 fatty acid. You may find brands of sprouted tofu, made from soybeans that have been germinated for a few days before being made into tofu, which could be easier to digest and also increase the bioavailability of micronutrients.

Another perk of the bean curd is that it comes in several textures – soft, medium, firm and extra-firm – so it can find a home in many different recipes, from curries to salads to tacos to stir-fry. Soft tofu can even be blended into smoothies for an extra protein punch!

RELATED: Go Beyond Tofu With These Plant-Based Proteins

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Dried Lentils

Whether you are buying them in a bag or from the bulk bins, there are few better ways to load up on nutrition on the cheap than with lentils. On top of delivering about 12 grams of protein in each quarter dry cup, lentils give you huge amounts of dietary fiber – 21 grams in the same serving amount. Considering very few Americans eat nearly enough fiber, lentils can most definitely be an important and inexpensive addition to one’s diet.

Other nutrition perks of lentils include a wide range of micronutrients including thiamine, folate, iron, phosphorus and magnesium. And here is some good motivation to use lentils as a protein backbone for more of your meals: A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found replacing some of the animal proteins with plant-based proteins in the diet may reduce the risk of premature death overall and death from cardiovascular disease.

Unlike dried beans, lentils do not require a pre-soak in order to cook in a reasonable amount of time. However, soaking them for several hours before preparation can make them easier to digest, especially if you are not accustomed to eating a lot of legumes and fiber. Use prepared dried lentils in salads and soups or as a cost-effective meat alternative in tacos, burritos, pasta sauce and burgers.

RELATED: 10 Easy Ways to Add More Fiber to Your Diet

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Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese remains very affordable and can be purchased at most stores for around $3 per 16-ounce tub. That makes it a more cost-effective protein than Greek yogurt. Each half-cup serving of lower-fat cottage cheese delivers a brag-worthy 14 grams of protein, which just happens to be more than most of the Greek yogurt on the market.

study review published in the journal Frontiers of Nutrition advises athletes to consume some protein before bed to help boost muscle recovery and growth in response to training. The study authors point out that casein, which cottage cheese has in abundance, is the best type of pre-snooze protein since it’s slower-releasing so it provides your body with a steady stream of muscle-friendly amino acids as you dream away. Cottage cheese also makes an excellent post-training food option, as research shows that 9 grams of milk-based protein can be enough to stimulate muscle-building following exercise. And don’t overlook that cottage cheese can be used as a way to boost protein intake at breakfast – another important time for charging up the muscle-building process.

Cottage cheese also supplies phosphorus which is another bone-strengthening mineral. Phosphorus is involved in the formation of hydroxyapatite, a compound that is a vital structural component of bone tissue. Additionally, cottage cheese offers up selenium, vitamin B12 and riboflavin, a member of the B vitamin family that helps your body metabolize the carbohydrates, proteins and fats you eat into the energy you use for all your daily activities including any workouts.

One caveat worth noting is that cottage cheese can be much higher in sodium than yogurt – a half-cup serving may have up to 400 milligrams, though some brands have less. (The daily sodium recommendation is 2,300 mg or less.) Salt is added to help preserve cottage cheese because it’s high in moisture. This makes it a food of concern for those whose blood pressure is sensitive to sodium or perhaps anyone who is already eating a ton of salt. On the flip side, this extra hit of sodium can be part of your nutrition recovery following a sweaty workout.

RELATED: You’re Probably Not Getting Enough Protein at Breakfast

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Peanut Butter

Not only is peanut butter the most affordable nut butter at the supermarket, but it also has the highest protein per serving – about 7 grams in two tablespoons. This makes sense considering that peanuts are technically a legume and not a tree nut like almonds or cashews. So, yes, a PB&J sandwich can help build stronger muscles after a workout.

While we should not be bestowing peanut butter superfood status, it does deliver useful amounts of magnesium and vitamin E. Acting as an antioxidant, higher intakes of vitamin E may help triathletes better adapt to training by limiting the amount of exercise-induced oxidative cell damage in the body. But research on this link is still not available. But we do know that a large percentage of Americans have suboptimal vitamin E status, so dietary sources like peanut butter can help you get your levels up to where they should be.

Roughly 75 percent of the fat in peanut butter hails from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources making it a heart-friendly fatty food. Ideally, you would use a brand that does not add in palm oil to make sure to maintain a better unsaturated-to-saturated fat profile.

RELATED: Is Peanut Butter Good For You?

Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D., is an author, journalist, and James Beard Award winner who specializes in sports nutrition.