They're crazy convenient, but if you're grabbing a 400-calorie bar every single day, you might want to reconsider replacing that habit with whole foods.
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I'm just going to say it: I'm addicted to protein bars. I have one every day.
Sure, in the scheme of things, there are far worse food obsessions. But over the past year, I've been working on cleaning up my diet by prioritizing whole, fresh foods, and I had one last thing holding me back. Yep, protein bars.
They're just so easy to eat on the go, and they can often pack 20 grams of protein into one tasty package. After chatting with some other health-minded friends, I found out that I'm not alone in my love of protein bars. And I'm also not alone in having an inkling that they're probably not the healthiest food choice to make on the reg. (BTW, people are cooking with protein bars and it's amazing.)
So, how bad is it *really* to eat a protein bar every day?! I talked to nutrition pros to find out if protein bars are really healthy or not.
Like anything else, it depends on who you ask. Some dietitians are very pro-protein bars; others are anti, but here's the general consensus: "I would classify protein bars as a supplement or a processed food," says Jill Merkel, a registered dietitian who focuses on sports performance. "Therefore, I would recommend protein bars only after doing a thorough diet assessment and making sure the client or athlete is getting enough whole foods first." (Related: I Gave Up Processed Foods for a Year and This Is What Happened)
That being said, Merkel still thinks protein bars can have a place in a well-rounded diet, especially since they're so convenient. "I would prefer a client or athlete has a protein bar to consume post-workout or for a midday snack rather than have nothing." If it's unlikely that you're going to tote a whole foods snack with you wherever you're going, then go ahead: grab the protein bar.
And while most dietitians agree that whole foods are generally better, protein bars can still help people make healthier choices overall. "The best diet is one that an individual can stick with," points out Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., a nutrition consultant for Renaissance Periodization.
Yes, protein bars are processed, but that doesn't automatically make them "bad." "Absolutist or black-and-white approaches to dieting, where some foods are 'bad' or 'dirty,' actually lead to much lower rates of adherence to the diet," says Fundaro. "If a person uses a daily protein bar as part of an overall nutritious diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains, and other lean protein sources, there's no reason to remove it or force them to replace it." (Woohoo!)
Of course, if the protein bar was adding extra calories and causing unintended weight gain, or causing stomach issues because of processed ingredients, then Fundaro says she'd probably recommend looking into an alternative snack or post-workout fuel option.
How to Choose a Healthy Protein Bar
So basically, it's fine to eat protein bars on the reg, provided that you're getting enough whole foods at your other meals. But that doesn't mean every protein bar is created equal. Here's what to look for if you're going to eat one.
Calories: "First, look at the calories and serving size," says Fundaro. "Some popular protein-style cookies, for example, contain two servings per package and about 500 calories total. This may approach one-third of the daily energy needs of a small, sedentary female." In other words, you want to make sure that if you're eating a protein bar as a snack, it actually has a "snack-size" number of calories.
Ingredients: Next up, check out the ingredients list. Is it long? "Oftentimes, protein bars are loaded with hard-to-pronounce ingredients," says Merkel. "The fewer ingredients, the better."
Protein: If you're eating protein bars to up your protein intake rather than just as a convenient snack, then this one is key. "Many nutrition bars on the market these days are actually energy bars rather than protein bars," Merkel points out. In other words, they have plenty of calories, so will likely provide you with energy, but are not high-protein enough to be considered protein bars. "Depending on one's overall calorie and protein needs, a good place to start is at least 10g of protein for a satisfying snack. For an athlete post-workout, I would recommend aiming for 15 to 30g of protein, depending on their body size."
If you're really focused on protein intake, "the ideal bar is going to provide at least 10g of protein for every 100 calories," says Emmie Satrazemis, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at Trifecta.
Fat: "Be sure to check the fat content and see if more of the calories are coming from fat or protein," advises Satrazemis. "A lot of bars are made with nuts, nut butter, and seeds, which rack up fat and calories quickly. These are healthy fats that can help fill you up a bit more, but if you are looking to a protein bar as a workout recovery snack, fat can slow the absorption of carbs and protein you need, and you'd want to opt for a lower-fat alternative."
Of course, if you're doing keto or a high-fat, low-carb diet, then a bar higher in fat will be a better choice for you.
Sugar/Carbs: "When it comes to sugar, the 'net carbs' labeling can be pretty confusing, and the sugar alcohols used in many low-carb bars can cause gas and bloat," says Fundaro. "Sugar alcohols include xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and erythritol. While they come from plant sources, they aren't readily digestible by humans. Look for a bar that has at least 5 grams of fiber and less than 5 grams of added sugars."
Protein Bar Alternatives
If you've decided you want to swap your protein bars for whole foods (at least some of the time), there are tons of choices—many are even vegetarian.
"Protein bars are not the most nutrient-dense source of protein you can get," says Satrazemis. "There are a lot of other options that can give you a great source of protein for fewer calories, and they typically contain other important nutrients as well." For reference, the average high-protein bar is between 200 and 250 calories and has about 20g of protein.
Instead, Satrazemis suggests these options, which also have about 20g of protein each:
- 1 cup of plain, non-fat Greek yogurt (100 calories)
- 5 hard-boiled egg whites (85 calories)
- 2 ounces grass-fed jerky (140 calories)
- 3 ounces grilled chicken and 2 tablespoons hummus (150 calories)
- 1 cup of edamame (200 calories)
Lastly, you always have the option of making your own protein bars. "In this case, vegan protein powders actually make the best protein addition; rice and pea protein bake very well," says Fundaro. "You'll find this to be the most cost-effective option, as well." Here are nine protein bar recipes to try ASAP to get you started.