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Protein Bars: Healthy or Harmful?

Protein Bars: Healthy or Harmful?

Nutrition bars, like protein bars, are no longer exclusive for muscular guys in the weight room. They are no longer sold exclusively at gyms or health food stores. That is all thanks to the increasing popularity in strength training and working out in general! Now you can walk into any grocery store and see a huge selection of protein bars that are advertised as a quick nutritious way to fuel your body and to up your protein intake to increase muscle mass. But not all protein bars are created equal...

They differ in cost, purpose, flavor, and the most important ingredients. Have you ever taken a moment to look at the ingredients list on the protein bars you've bought? I hope you have! The ingredient list can be lengthy and filled with ingredients you don't even know or understand the purpose of. Which begs the question... Are protein bars good for you? 

It depends on what's inside. Which is what we're covering in this article, protein bars: the good and the bad. So you have the information you need to choose one that won't sabotage all the hard work you're putting into your health.

Protein Bars: The Good

Protein is an essential macronutrient - For everyone, not just those who are trying to build muscle. Protein is critical for muscle building, metabolic rate, hormonal health, and satiety levels. Everyone's protein needs are different, it usually depends on body weight and goals that they are trying to achieve. Those who are working to improve their body composition usually consume a high protein diet. In fact, to increase muscle mass the recommendation is to consume 25-35 grams of protein at every meal.[1] So you're looking at 100+ grams of protein a day!

No matter if you're an expert meal prepper, you might not always have time to have protein-packed meals and snacks for when you're busy. Heck, sometimes you might even forget to eat with how busy you are! This is when protein bars come in to save the day...

When done right, these packaged nutrition bars can be a great on-the-go snack after hitting the gym or to get in the extra protein you need on days when you're too busy to think about cooking. So the biggest pro these bars have is convenience. It allows busy people to get the nutrients they need in times they are unable to have a proper nutritious meal. Aside from convenience, when protein bars are done right they can be beneficial for...

  • Muscle gain
  • Meal replacement
  • Weight loss (When part of a balanced diet, they can help keep you full longer and can help curb appetite and overeating.)
  • Weight gain (This might not be most people's goals, but for some it is. Protein bars are nutrient-dense and can help those who have trouble gaining weight.)

It's when companies take shortcuts that these bars could leave you running on a treadmill and going nowhere with your fitness. The wrong protein bar can make it impossible to reach your goals of weight loss, toning up, or building muscle...

Protein Bars: The Bad

Protein is essential in helping your body recover after intense training, but are protein bars the best choice for a post-workout meal or snack? That depends on the kind you're eating. Although many can help you with your fitness journey, many companies add so many chemicals and sugar to their protein bars that it makes them just as bad as a candy bar. Some bars can have more than 30 grams of sugar and 200+ calories! They can also be filled with other additives that provide no health benefit to your body. So that grab-and-go snack you thought was helping you reach your goals is doing the opposite, it's ruining your diet and hard work.

How to shop for protein bars

With all of this being said, should we even eat protein bars? In a perfect world, you should be getting most, if not all, of your protein from whole foods - Lean meats, dairy, egg whites, nuts, legumes, etc. Unfortunately, that's not always possible, and having a convenient snack like a protein bar can help. So although it may seem like the bad outweighs the good, not all protein bars are bad! You just have to know what to look for and what to avoid. 

Keep these general guidelines in mind when searching for the best protein bar...

  • Protein amount: For a pre or post-workout snack, look for a bar that has at least 20 grams of protein. Meal-replacement bars should have at least 30 grams of protein.
  • Protein type: This depends on your dietary preferences and goals. Typically protein in bars comes from dairy like whey protein, eggs, milk, casein. Pick the best ingredient for you based on the type of protein powder you already consume, or one that fits your needs and goals. If you're looking for a dairy-free or vegan protein source look for brown rice, pea, or hemp protein.
  • Calories: You would be surprised, but many protein bars average more calories than a cheeseburger, which definitely won’t help you cut weight if you’re eating them instead of a banana or some other healthy snack. These calories can sneak up on people, which is why protein bars can ruin your diet. Stick to a protein bar that has around 220-250 calories. Meal-replacement bars can have up to 400 calories.
  • Fat: Be wary about the type and amount of fat per bar. Stay away from bars made with partially hydrogenated oils, it's a fancy word for unhealthy trans fat. Make sure the bar you choose has 10-15 grams of fat and no more than two grams of saturated fat.
  • Fiber: Protein isn't the only nutrient that keeps you full, so does fiber! The more fiber the bar has, the longer you'll be satisfied until your next nutritious meal. Look for bars with over 5 grams of fiber.
  • Sugar: Last, and most important, beware of the sugar content! Protein bars are often compared to candy bars because they can have as much as 30 grams of added sugar. Ideally, you want a bar with 5 grams or less! Also make sure to avoid these hidden sugars that try to sneak in and ruin your progress: sorbitol syrup, glucose syrup, and glycerol. These 3 ingredients are essentially the same as sugar. Look for bars that are naturally sweetened with natural sources like fruit or opt for bars that contain sugar alcohol like erythritol or stevia (just make sure it's listed towards the end of the ingredients list)!

Ingredients to avoid

Essentially the primary ingredients should be a protein source (dairy or dairy-free), carbs that contain fiber (typically a fruit or vegetable), and a healthy fat source (nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds). In an ideal world, all protein bars would only contain those ingredients, but that's not the case. When looking at the ingredients list beware for these...

  • Non-natural sugars: Brown rice syrup, honey, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, dextrose, agave nectar, fructose, caramel, sucralose, evaporated cane juice.
  • Sugar alcohols: Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol (erythritol and stevia are ok in small amounts)
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Artificial food coloring
  • Artificial flavors
  • Artificial preservatives
  • Carrageenan
  • Non-organic soy and soy protein isolate

Although you should prioritize natural protein sources, it might be difficult to consume a high protein diet with only food. It's not uncommon for people to have protein shakes and protein bars as a way to help them to reach their daily protein goals. But remember, it's all about balance. If you eat a balanced diet filled with nutritious foods and exercise regularly, then having a protein bar on a busy day won't ruin any of your hard work! Just remember to keep it simple, look for 20+ grams of protein, high fiber, little to no artificial sweeteners, and calorie-friendly.