Protein bars have unwrapped their way into the lives of anyone who has an active, grab-and-go lifestyle, whether you’re a dedicated gym-goer, soccer mom or even a busy student. And when you’re dashing from work to the gym, class or to pick up the kids from practice, it’s easier and convenient to snack on. But all protein bars aren’t created equal. While many pack the protein necessary to do their job, some may be filled with empty calories, added sugar and unfamiliar ingredients.
Keep them as snacks
No preparation or refrigeration is necessary, which is why protein bars are so appealing. They’re also a great way to ensure protein intake stays up to par during the day.
“They provide satisfying nutrition in a portion-controlled package,” says Jacqueline Gomes, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. “Depending on the brand you choose, a protein bar can provide an excellent source of protein, carbohydrate and fiber to keep you full, fuel a workout or keep you satiated for an extended period of time, which may help you from feeling ravenous before your next meal.”
She and other experts agree that although protein bars could be swapped out for a meal, they can’t compare to a full plate of food. “I don’t like it when people start to rely on them for multiple meals a day,” Gomes says. “They are meant to be a supplement.”
Cynthia Gillette Dormer, a nutrition professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, says protein bars fall into the processed food category, so they should be a habit you eat once per week or less.
“You’re better off with food for meals,” Dormer says. “For athletes who need unusually high amounts of protein and calories ... snacking on a protein bars can make sense. But for most people, protein bars are too high-calorie for snacking.”
What to look for
It’s important to eat protein bars that have easy-to-read labels, and looking for whole ingredients — seeds, nuts, unsweetened cocoa powder and whey protein, for example — is a first step.
“I recommend any that have recognizable ingredients,” Dormer says, which include some of her favorite such as RXBar, Quest, Lara, Kind and Bobo.
Gomes says DotFit Bars taste like a dessert and contain high-quality ingredients. “(DotFit Bars) have been through rigorous third-party testing, so I know that what the manufacturer says is in the bar is actually in there,” she says.
The number of grams of protein needed in a bar depends on the person and purpose, Dormer says. She recommends 8 grams or so as a snack, and 20 grams or so as a meal replacement. “But these aren’t hard rules,” she says. Gomes recommends typically 12 to 20 grams of protein per bar.
But it all depends on what you’re doing before and after you eat it. The same goes with bars that have a lot of sugar — if you eat a protein bar loaded with sugar before an endurance workout, the body will use that glucose for energy. Any other time, a sweeter bar could increase your blood sugar, leading to an energy crash, hunger and hard-to-control cravings.
As far as kids go, protein bars aren’t the best things to give them, Dormer says. “For one, the serving sizes are not designed for children,” she says. “Their smaller bodies don’t need as much protein, vitamins, minerals or as many calories.”
Dormer says before you munch on your next protein bar remember that most of us don’t need the extra calories or protein. “People with kidney, liver and other metabolic conditions need to avoid eating too much protein,” she says. “For them, too much protein can further damage their organs. Massive amounts of protein aren’t recommended for anyone.”