Or are they wrecking your diet and ruining your workout? We unwrap the evidence.
Protein bars used to be just for mega-muscular guys in the weight room. But with more and more women looking to up their protein intake, protein bars have become a staple of the bottom-of-the-purse abyss.
Is that a good thing? We dug into the research and talked to top experts to find out the whole truth about protein bars.
So, Are Protein Bars Bad or Good?
The pros: First of all, there's the protein. "Protein is an essential macronutrient for every woman," says Kylene Bogden, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. Protein is critical to not only the lean muscle mass, but also to your metabolic rate, satiety levels, and even hormonal health. A comprehensive 2015 review in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism encourages people, especially those working to improve their body composition (the ratio of body fat to muscle), to consume between 25 and 35 grams of protein at every meal.
However, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that most women aren't coming close to this ideal threshold. After all, no matter how great we are at meal prep, we don't always have the time and forethought to spend Sunday afternoon whipping up tons of protein-packed, ready-to-eat meals and snacks—followed by divvying them up into individual containers (and keeping them cold!) and dragging them around all day (and then heating them up again).
This is exactly why protein bars are so appealing. No prep or refrigeration is necessary, so if you have an active, grab-and-go lifestyle, they're a great way to make sure your protein intake stays on-point throughout the day. "One of the main benefits of protein bars is the convenience factor," says Bogden. "They are ideal for women's busy lifestyles, and can help them get the nutrients they wouldn't be able to get otherwise."
Speaking of nutrients, those include necessary carbs, fat, and fiber, all of which work in tandem with protein to increase amino acid availability to your muscles, aid in satiety, and keep your energy levels up, says registered dietitian Betsy Opyt, R.D., C.D.E., founder of Betsy's Best. "Food is your body's fuel. If you don't plan to snack or eat throughout the day, then finding the energy to power through an afternoon spin class can be a challenge," she says, noting that a blend of carbs and protein is also vital to workout recovery. That's why so many women turn to protein bars as a pre- and post-workout snack.
The cons: "Some protein bars have more than 30 grams of sugar and more calories than a candy bar," says board-certified sports dietitian Georgie Fear, R.D., C.S.S.D., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. Meanwhile, others are full of hard-to-pronounce, lab-made ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils (read: trans fat), high-fructose corn syrup, food coloring, artificial sugars, sugar alcohols, and other additives that have been linked with less-than-stellar health, says Bogden.
Tips for Choosing a Healthy Protein Bar
Check the ingredients list: This is a must to determine exactly what you're eating, so don't rely on labels on the front of the packaging to make your decision. "Don't even consider protein or fat content until you've ensured that the bar is made with good-for-you ingredients that you actually recognize," says Bogden. For instance, CLIF Bar makes various products, from its BUILDER'S Protein Bar to Organic Trail Mix Bar, using whole ingredients like rolled oats and nut butter—and zero partially hydrogenated oils or high-fructose corn syrup. ALOHA makes vegan protein bars that are also super clean.
Know your goal: In addition to checking out the ingredients, it's important to keep an eye on protein, fat, carbs, sugar, and fiber—although the ideal amount of each depends on exactly what you hope to get from your bar. "If you're using it as your primary source of protein, then you definitely want a bar with at least 10 grams of protein," says Fear. "I try to find ones with less sugar for travel snacks or pre-bed snacks. However, if you're using a bar during athletic activity, sugar is a readily available source of quick fuel so fruit leathers or fruit-based bars aren't necessarily a bad idea." If you're looking for post-workout recovery or sustained energy (to get through a long hike, perhaps) choose a bar with about 30 grams of carbohydrates, as a low-carb bar won't fuel you as well, she adds. (See what's on store shelves in our list of the best and worst nutrition bars for women.) As far as fat and fiber go, Opyt recommends choosing a bar with about 10 to 15 grams of fat, primarily from unsaturated sources (try to keep saturated fat intake to less than 5 grams) and a fiber total between 3 and 5 grams, which will add to your bar's hunger-squashing effect.
Make your own protein bar: Not finding exactly what you're looking for at the health food store or at your local market? Try making your own protein bars with one of these vegan protein bar recipes.
Luckily, if you're mindful of what's going into your bar and why you're eating them, you don't need to be overly concerned with calories. After all, if you're on a daylong hike, you'll probably need lots of protein and carbs (which might total 300-plus calories) from your protein bar, reminds Fear. If you're looking for an afternoon pick-me-up at the office, a more trail-mixy bar with lower carb and protein levels at about 150 to 200 calories, will hit the spot.