Protein and Carbohydrate Content in Foods

How much protein is really in peanut butter? Which foods have the most carbs? Nutrition Diva’s answers may surprise you.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #168

Lizette writes, “Can you explain what types of foods contain protein, carbohydrates, and starches so that we know exactly what you mean when you use these terms?”

I like to think that it’s possible to eat healthy without having a degree in nutrition. So when I talk about nutrients like protein or carbohydrates, I always try to include examples of actual foods. For example, in my article on the benefits of protein, I suggested that protein foods such as eggs, meat, fish, soy, peanuts, and other legumes are great for controlling your appetite because they keep you satisfied for longer.  I’ve also talked about out the importance of portion control when eating starches such as bread, pasta, rice, and other grains.

But the truth is that none of those “protein foods” are pure protein and none of the “starches” are pure carbohydrates. Although I don’t want to make things more complicated than they need to be, perhaps it’s time for quick review of which nutrients these basic foods provide.

What Foods Provide Protein?

Meat and Eggs Are Protein Plus Fat. Animal products like meat, fish, and eggs are the most concentrated sources of protein but they also contain varying amounts of fat. Very lean meats like bison, chicken or turkey breast, shellfish, and non-oily fish like haddock and flounder have the highest ratio of protein to fat—they’re 75-95% protein. Although egg whites are virtually 100% protein, whole eggs are about half protein and half fat. Oily fish like salmon are also about half protein and half fat—but the fats are the very healthiest kind. 

Quick and Dirty Tip: The leaner the meat, the more protein it contains.

Dairy Products Contain Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. All dairy products start out as whole milk, which is about 20% protein, 30% carbohydrate, and 50% fat. (The carbohydrate portion, by the way, is mostly lactose, or milk sugar.) To make low fat-milk and yogurt, they skim off the fat, which means that the percentage of protein and carbohydrate goes up. Low fat milk is about 30% protein, 50% carbohydrates, and just 20% fat. To make cheese, on the other hand, they separate out the whey, which contains most of the carbohydrates. Cheese is about 25% protein and 75% fat.

Quick and Dirty Tip: Low-fat dairy products are higher in protein (and lower in calories) but they are also higher in milk sugars.

Bean and Legumes are Mostly Carbs With Some Protein. Vegetarians rely on beans and legumes for a lot of their protein, but these foods are actually a combination of protein and carbohydrate. Beans like pinto, navy and kidney are about one-quarter protein and three-quarters carbohydrate. The carbohydrate portion is a mixture of fiber and starch. Of all the legumes, soybeans have the most protein and they’re much lower in carbohydrates but they’re also a bit higher in fat. Whole soybeans are about one-third protein, one-quarter carbs and the rest (about 42%) is fat.

Quick and Dirty Tip:  Beans and legumes are high in carbohydrates. So if these are your primary source of protein, you may want to cut back on other starchy foods like grains and breads.


Nuts are Mostly Fat With a Little Protein.  Nuts are also an important protein source for vegetarians and I usually include nut and nut butters in my list of protein foods. But you should be aware that most nuts are also very high in fat. On average, nuts are about 10% protein, 15% carbohydrate, and 75% fat. The carbohydrate portion is a mixture of starch and fiber. Of all the nuts, peanuts (which are technically legumes), provide the most protein. They are about 15% protein, 15% carbohydrate, and 70% fat.

Quick and Dirty Tip:   Nuts and nut butters supply a lot of fat and calories along with the protein.

What Foods Contain Carbohydrates?

Fruits and Vegetables are Mostly Carbohydrate. Although they contain small amounts of fat and protein, most fruits and vegetables are primarily carbohydrates. With the exception of starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes, the carbohydrates in most fruits and vegetables are in the form of sugar and fiber.  Serving for serving, however, most vegetables are quite low in both sugar and calories—and loaded with valuable nutrients.

Quick and Dirty Tip: Although vegetables are almost entirely carbohydrate, most of them are still considered low carbohydrate foods.

Grains Contain Carbohydrates Plus Protein. Often, when people talk about restricting carbohydrate foods, they are really talking about foods that are high in starches, such as grains and products made from grains, like bread, pasta, crackers, and anything made with flour. Grains like wheat and rice are about 80-85% carbohydrate, mostly in the form of starch along with some fiber. They also contain anywhere from 5-15% protein, by the way. Whole wheat spaghetti, for example, contains the same percentage of protein as peanut butter.

Although I’m not a fan of low-carb diets per se, I have suggested that if you need to cut calories, grain-based foods are often a good place to start. These foods pack a lot of calories into a relatively small space, they are notoriously easy to overeat, they don’t keep you full as well as other foods, and they’re nowhere near as nutritious as other sources of carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruit, beans, and legumes.  

Quick and Dirty Tip: An easy way to cut calories is to replace some of the starches in your diet with vegetables. For example, instead of serving rice or potatoes with dinner, serve a second vegetable. Or, try mixing regular spaghetti half and half with spaghetti squash. If you’ve never made spaghetti squash, here’s a video showing you how.

Eat Food, Not Nutrients!

I hope you found this information about the nutritional content of foods useful – or at least interesting. If you found it a little overwhelming, don’t worry: You don’t have to know the protein, fat, and carbohydrate ratios of all the various foods in order to build a balanced diet. I’ll continue to translate nutritional principles into guidelines that focus on everyday foods and meals. Just follow my Quick and Dirty Tips for eating well and feeling fabulous!

Protein image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.