Health Plus

hpTheGreatProteinDebate.jpgAnimal protein or plant protein – which is better for you?  With increased interest in types of protein, and new fad diets emerging each day, some consumers find it hard to understand how to make wise choices from the protein food group.

What is protein?

Protein is found in every living cell in your body, and it is responsible for building and maintaining healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones, and more!  Protein is made of smaller building blocks called amino acids.  The body can make some amino acids, but certain amino acids have to be obtained from food.  These amino acids are called "essential amino acids."  Foods that have all the essential amino acids are known as "complete" sources of protein, and foods that are missing some essential amino acids are known as "incomplete" sources. 

How much protein do I need?

An average, a healthy adult should aim to consume 0.8 grams of protein per day for every kilogram of body weight.  For example, a 150 pound (68.2 kg) individual would need to consume about 55 grams of protein each day.  Another way to think about protein needs is to focus on eating between 5-6 ounces of protein foods each day.  (A 3-ounce portion of lean meat is about the size of a deck of cards, and ¼ cup of beans counts as 1 ounce).

Animal Protein

Animal foods such as eggs, meat, fish, and poultry provide complete sources of protein while also providing other nutrients like iron, zinc, and B vitamins.  However, animal foods can be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which may have health implications.  Choose lean animal foods, such as white meat chicken without the skin, fish, turkey, 92% lean ground beef, and leaner cuts of beef and pork such as the loin and round.

Plant Protein

Plant foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and some grains tend to be incomplete sources of protein, meaning they are missing some of the amino acids that your body needs.  However, if you eat a wide variety of plant foods throughout the day, you can get all the amino acids you need. Aim to eat a source of protein at each meal, such as nuts for breakfast, beans for lunch, and tofu or quinoa for dinner.  Plant sources of protein are higher in fiber and potassium and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than animal sources.  Plant foods tend to be less expensive, easy to cook, and have a long shelf life.

What is the best approach to eating protein?

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans show that most Americans consume adequate amounts of protein, but need to shift their focus as to what types of protein they are eating.  Lean sources and variety is key.  To develop a healthy eating pattern that meets the nutrition guidelines and fits your personal preference, consider the following tips:

  • Try to eat 8 ounces of seafood per week (less for young children)
  • When eating meat, choose lean options
  • Eat a handful of unsalted nuts and seeds as a snack
  • Go meatless: replace a source of meat with a legume, like beans
  • Reduce intake of high-sodium, processed proteins like sausage, deli meat, and bacon


Choose one day this week to go meatless.  In addition to substituting the meat, focus on adding in whole grains, beans, legumes, and vegetables to your meal.  Reflect on anything you noticed about yourself (i.e. mood, energy level) from this experience.

Reinvent pizza night with these delicious meatless pizzas!

Butternut Squash Arugula Pita Pizza

Prep Time: 30 minutes / Makes: 1 serving


1 cup butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1 100% whole grain pita round
¼ cup low-sodium tomato sauce
¼ onion, sliced
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ cup fresh arugula
1/8 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Black pepper, to taste


  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  • Fill a pot with boiling water.  Chop butternut squash into 1-inch cubes and cook in boiling water for 10-15 minutes or until tender but still firm.  Drain when done.
  • Place pita round on baking sheet and spread tomato sauce onto pita.  Spread butternut squash chunks onto pita bread evenly and top with sliced onions.
  • Drizzle olive oil over pita, and bake for 15 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and finish by topping with fresh arugula, feta cheese, balsamic vinegar, and black pepper.

Nutrient Information per Serving (1 pita pizza):
Calories: 426, Total Fat: 13 grams, Saturated Fat: 4 grams, Sodium: 613 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 71 grams, Fiber: 10 grams, Sugar: 8 grams, Protein: 13.5 grams

Recipe slightly adapted from: Food Heaven Made Easy

Southwestern Pizza

Prep Time: 8 minutes / Cook Time: 10 minutes / Makes: 4 servings


1 100% whole wheat pizza crust
¾ cup tomato salsa
1 cup shredded low-sodium mozzarella cheese
1 ½ cup low-sodium black beans, drained and rinsed
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
2 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
¼ cup cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)


  • Heat the oven to 450 degrees.  Lightly coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. 
  • Place crust on sheet and top with salsa, mozzarella, beans, sliced red pepper, and green onions.
  • Place pizza in oven and bake 8 to 10 minutes or until mozzarella is melted.  Remove from oven and garnish with cilantro if desired.  Cut into 8 slices and serve.

Nutrition Facts per Serving (Serving Size: 2 slices)
Calories: 337, Total Fat: 9 grams, Saturated Fat: 4g, Sodium: 641 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 49 grams, Fiber: 12 grams, Sugar: 6 grams, Protein: 13 grams

Recipe slightly adapted from: Fitness Magazine

Veggie Hummus Pizza

Prep Time: 20 minutes / Makes: 4 servings


1 100% whole wheat pizza crust
1 cup garlic hummus (or favorite flavor of hummus)
1 zucchini, sliced
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
¾ cup fresh or frozen sweet corn
½ small sweet onion, chopped
1 cup shredded low-sodium mozzarella cheese



  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Lightly coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. 
  • Place crust on sheet and top with hummus, zucchini, red pepper, corn, and onion.  Top with cheese.
  • Bake for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Nutrition Information per Serving (Serving Size: ¼ of pizza)
Calories: 419, Total Fat: 15 grams, Saturated Fat: 5 grams, Sodium: 501 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 57 grams, Fiber: 11 grams, Sugar: 8 grams, Protein: 13 grams

Recipe created by Laura Eckhardt, dietetic intern, The Dietetic Internship Program at Vanderbilt