What Are the Differences in Proteins & Starches?

Proteins and starches can play various roles in wellness.
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Protein and starch are nutrients that give you energy, and they both have the same amount of calories--four per gram. They're both found in many foods, including highly nutritious and not-so-nutritious fare. Americans usually eat a lot more than their daily requirements of protein and starch, often from unhealthy foods. By learning more about proteins and starches, and healthy ways to meet your needs, you may support better eating habits that support good health.

Primary Function

    Your body relies on protein for normal growth and development, and for lean tissue growth and repair. Starches, a type of carbohydrate, are a top source of energy for your brain and body. Resistant starches are a form that do not break down into sugar molecules during digestion, says Monica Reinagel, a registered dietitian with Nutrition Diva. Thus, they have a similar property as fiber because they slow down the absorption of sugars from other foods during digestion.


    While protein is prevalent in some plant-based foods and all animal-derived foods, starch naturally occurs solely in plant foods. Fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, rice, cereals and beans are examples of foods with natural starch. Some protein-rich foods include seafood, poultry, and milk products. Processed foods, such as macaroni and cheese, frozen pizzas and fast food sandwiches contain starch and protein. Some people use the word "starch" to describe starch-containing processed foods, such as white bread, instant rice and other refined grain products. These foods are high in starch, but low in overall nutrient content compared to whole foods.

Healthiest Sources

    Not all protein and starch sources are nutritious, particularly when it comes to high-fat and processed items. To prevent excessive saturated fat intake, the Mayo Clinic recommends emphasizing lean protein sources, such as fish, skinless white-meat poultry, and low-fat milk and yogurt. Too much saturated fat is linked to heart disease.

    Your healthiest starch sources include whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Particularly fiber- and antioxidant-rich options include oatmeal, barley, whole grain pasta, tomatoes, citrus fruits, berries, sweet potatoes and dark leafy greens. Resistant starches are prevalent in mangoes, bananas, potatoes, rice and pasta that's been cooked then cooled.


    According to MayoClinic.com, a healthy diet consists of 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates and 10 to 35 percent protein, primarily from nutritious, whole foods. Within a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, this equals 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates and 50 to 175 grams of protein. When purchasing breads, cereals and other processed foods, choose items that list whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats or quinoa, as main ingredients. Limit foods high in added sugars, such as cookies and pastries, and fatty protein sources, such as fried chicken, high-fat meats and whole milk. When you do indulge in low-nutrient fare, stick to modest portions. While the occasional treat won't damage your wellness, excessive amounts can.

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