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Staying in Tune with Protein Trends

Sharon Palmer

Protein has risen to the top of the nutrient heap in recent years. Thanks to trendy weight loss diets, caveman-style eating patterns, and influential celebrities and athletes hashing over their diets, getting more protein seems to be a top priority for many consumers. While carbs are perceived by many as “evil”, protein is wearing a veritable health halo today. This is also due to research that points out protein’s benefits in promoting satiety and preserving lean muscle mass, especially as we age, according to McKenzie Hall Jones, RDN, nutrition communications consultant and co-founder of NourishRDs. “I think the message of incorporating protein throughout the day, in both meals and snacks, resonates with many as an attainable strategy for helping to curb cravings and achieve a sense of fullness after eating,” she adds.

In the 4th annual What’s Trending in Nutrition Survey from Pollock Communications and Today’s Dietitian, which included 450 dietitians who were asked to make predictions on the top nutrition trends for the year, the majority (67%) felt that there will continue to be a focus on high-quality protein choices, and 27% feel that the protein focus will even grow this year.1 This parallels the International Food and Information Council’s 2106 Food and Health Survey, which found that 64% of consumers are trying to increase their protein intake, making it the top nutrient consumers are trying to prioritize in their diets.2

From Protein Amount to Protein Type

What’s of more interest today in the quest for protein is the types of proteins dietitians feel people are in hot pursuit of. The Today’s Dietitian survey found that 41% of dietitians feel that plant-based proteins are on the rise, and that the focus will be less on beef, bacon, and other processed and red meats as more consumers look to seafood, nuts and seeds, eggs, poultry, and dairy to provide quality protein in their diets. This goes along with other micro trends that impact protein choices highlighted in the survey, such as an interest in including more seeds in the diet, as well as an overall preference for more healthful and “clean” eating choices.1 Why are people more interested in such protein alternatives? Many reasons factor in, including sustainability, animal welfare, nutritional value, and health promotion.

As optimal health weighs more heavily on consumers’ minds, alternative protein choices—which can make a big impact on the overall nutritional value and healthfulness of a diet pattern—rise to the top. “The trend towards high-quality protein sources, especially plant proteins is very popular now,” says Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, The Lifestyle Nutritionist, author of Total Body Diet For Dummies and blogger at “People are looking for alternative plant proteins to get more nutritional value from fiber, healthy fats, and other vitamins and minerals that plants offer, with less saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol.”

Virginia-based private practice dietitian, Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, CHWC, author of Diabetes Weight Loss-Week by Week, believes that people are becoming more aware of the science about plant-based diets being beneficial for cardiovascular and brain health, as well as type 2 diabetes prevention compared with animal-based diets.

People are also lured to alternatives for animal proteins due to sustainability and environmental concerns, according to Weisenberger, who adds, “People want food from the earth, versus foods that feed off the earth and emit green-house gases, particularly grain-fed livestock, such as cows.” Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that the sustainability and health benefits promoted through Meatless Monday—a simple campaign from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that promotes avoiding meat one day a week—has also fed into the support of more plant-based protein choices, such as pulses and tofu.

Consumers are taking more of an interest in learning where their food comes from and choosing quality over quantity when it comes to their protein sources—especially when it’s animal-based, according to Jones. This falls right in line with the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 What’s Hot Forecast, which includes locally sourced meats and seafood, as well as environmental sustainability on their list of top trends for the year.3 “Grass-fed animal proteins, such as dairy, meat, and eggs seem to be increasingly popular,” says Jones, who points to recent research showing organically farmed animals provide up to 50% more omega-3s than conventionally farmed animals. 4

And that ever so popular clean eating trend, recommended by a myriad of popular new diet trends, has also pushed people to choose less processed protein choices notes Weisenberger. Hence the move from bacon, sausage and hamburgers to bean burgers, lentil loaves, and almond butter sandwiches.

Hot Protein Picks

The list of popular protein picks dietitians predict people will be putting on the menu, according to the Today’s Dietitian Survey, includes pulses, nuts, seeds, healthier and greener animal proteins, dairy products, and eggs.1 Indeed, a spin down the supermarket aisle yields an astonishing array of innovative new products focused on these ingredients, from frozen entrees and veggie-burgers to snacks and crackers.

Weisenberger reports that her patients and clients are searching for healthful protein sources that are versatile, easy to use, and tasty, such as canned beans, low-fat cottage cheese, and plain Greek yogurt. In Retelny’s practice, she sees more people focusing on protein choices, such as eggs, protein shakes, nut butters, yogurt, and milk at breakfast; nuts, protein-packed bars, yogurt, hummus, and cheese sticks for snacks; and nuts, salmon, and tuna in salads at mealtime.

Pulses, such as dried beans, peas, and lentils, are definitely on the hot list, too, stresses Sheth. Jones adds, “Given the United Nations deemed 2016 The International Year of the Pulses, I’m finding that Americans are starting to embrace pulses, including beans and legumes in their diet more often. They’re cost effective, and offer nutrients, such as fiber and vitamins, in addition to being an excellent source of protein.”

Dishing Good Protein Advice

Are there any nutritional concerns that dietitians should be aware of when it comes to these hot, new protein picks? While this trend towards more sustainable, healthful protein choices is a good move, it comes with a few caveats.

Clearing up consumer confusion over protein needs and choices is an important service dietitians can offer their clients in order to help them make the most of their health. “I see so much misinformation,” says Ruth Frechman, MS, RD, author of The Food Is My Friend Diet and owner of On the Weigh in Burbank, California. Frechman says that people often believe that protein powders and bars and organic and natural products are good choices without even looking at the labels. Helping clients understand how to read food labels in order to pick out products with good amounts of protein, and lower amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium can be invaluable to their health goals.

Given the current trend that finds protein is “king”, dietitians can help educate their clients to understand that the healthfulness of one’s diet isn’t only about protein. “While protein has been shown to increase satiety, it’s important to keep in mind that it is not a magic bullet for weight loss or maintenance; having a well-rounded diet of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, in addition to protein sources is important for optimal wellness,” stresses Jones.

Balancing the diet healthfully with all food groups is an important consideration, too. As people prioritize protein—sometimes to a fault—they can be shunning other important foods and nutrients. “This protein trend may be steering people away from getting enough whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. People are not aware that a 4-6 ounce serving or 30 grams of protein is all your body should be getting at one time. Muscle can only utilize that amount.”

On the other hand, some people may not be getting enough protein. “Some patients who want to include a good protein source in each meal are still underconsuming protein because they are skimping on calories. They may think that a single egg or tablespoon of peanut butter is a full serving of protein foods,” says Frechman.

In order to stay in tune with the new trend of protein alternatives, such as tofu, dried beans, and nuts, dietitians may need to become a little more knowledgeable and educated about the nutritional profiles and cooking methods of these foods, says Sheth. For example, there are numerous types of tofu (i.e., silken, firm, extra-firm, baked), nut milks, cheeses, and yogurts; faux meat alternatives, such as burgers, “chicken”, crumbles, and sausages; and protein powders on the market today—each with different nutritional profiles. In addition, understanding how to soak and cook pulses is essential to including these healthful food choices in meal planning.

Dietitians can surely embrace the new more healthful, sustainable protein trend, and be at the center of helping consumers make the best choices, too.

Get more plant-powered inspiration with some of my favorite recipes:

Lentil Patties with Basil Arugula Cashew Cream (Vegan)

Greek Veggie Balls with Tahini Lemon Sauce (Vegan)


1. What’s Trending in Nutrition Survey, 2016, Today’s Dietitian, Pollock Communications. Accessed May 10, 2016.

2. International Food Information Council Foundation 2015 Food & Health Survey, May 8, 2015. International Food Information Council, Accessed May 10, 2016.

3. What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, National Restaurant Association, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2016.

4. Srednicka-Tober D, Baranski M, Seal CJ, et al. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, alpha-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 2016 (115):1043-1060. Accessed May 10, 2016.

This article was written by Sharon Palmer, RDN, and first appeared in Today’s Dietitian.

Top Image: Edamame Ancient Grain Burgers, Sharon Palmer, RDN

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