In this blog post, I will discuss if protein bars are healthy, two ingredients to watch out for, and healthy, homemade alternatives created by Registered Dietitians!
Whether you call them energy bars, energy bites, nutrition bars, or protein bars, it’s referring to the same food product. In this blog post, I’ll use the term protein bars for simplicity.
In recent years, there has been a plethora of new protein bars hit the grocery shelves. Some come in pretty packaging, highlighting healthful nutrients that help rebuild muscle post-workout or even serve as a nutritious meal replacement. Others resemble the flavor profile of cookie dough and chocolate cake with 26 grams (or more!) of protein per serving.
The deal with protein bars
Protein bars were originally created for active individuals (remember Power Bars?). Long distance runners, bikers, and long endurance athletes were the target population for these high calorie, high protein bars because they needed something quick and easy to keep up their endurance and replenish what they lost. Eventually, protein bars got in the hands of sedentary individuals because they were quick and convenient to eat as our lives became busier.
For average individuals, eating a protein bar for a post-work out snack or even as a meal is not nutritionally necessary and, for some, it can even contribute to weight gain. Before I was a Registered Dietitian, I ate protein bars often. And to keep it simple, I gained weight. Protein bars were never satisfying, and it wasn’t until I became a Registered Dietitian, I learned the importance of real, whole food.
Nutrition in protein bars
If you are a consumer of protein bars, there are two questionable ingredients found in many protein bars. So, it’s important to know which bars are healthier, and which ones to stay clear from. By scanning the back of the wrapper, you’ll know real fast which bar to gently place back, and which one to throw in your cart like a slam dunk.
Most protein bars flaunt their nutritional profile having more protein and less sugar, and these are the two ingredients I will tackle today. The purpose of this is to educate and inform why protein bars should not be consumed on a regular basis.
TIP: Pass on any protein bar that has buzz words such as “low fat” or “sugar free,” and I always skip protein bars with ingredients that I can’t pronounce.
1) The Protein in protein bars
More protein, the better?
Many companies tout more protein, the better. This isn’t entirely true. In fact, it depends on the individual and their current eating pattern and past medical history whether a high protein diet is healthy or not. Even as a heavy weight body builder, avid runner, or average individual, you may be meeting, and likely exceeding, the recommended protein for your body.
In fact, the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines gathered information on what Americans eat and the research was eye-opening. The research showed on average, American adults either met or exceeded the daily recommended protein intake, with some Americans eating double the amount!
If you are consuming a diet high in protein (ie: large amounts of animal products), in addition to protein bars (or shakes), it is likely that you are exceeding the daily recommended protein intake. The excess calories from protein bars (or shakes) could be contributing to weight gain.
Protein Isolate versus Protein Concentrate
Many protein bars either contain protein isolates or concentrates, which are produced during a drying technique of the protein, whey. Protein content can vary based on the technique used, but overall, protein isolates and protein concentrates offer a lot of protein. Although this will help meet (or exceed) your individual protein requirements, it’s recommended to obtain protein from high-quality sources such as diary, eggs, fish, nuts, or poultry.
As of now, there is no credible evidence that show protein isolates or concentrates are dangerous to our health. For certain individuals, there are benefits for consuming processed forms of whey like isolates or concentrates to meet protein needs. However, for the average healthy individual, those ingredients are not necessary and highly processed.
What to look for in protein bars
Avoid ingredients with protein isolate or protein concentrate listed as an ingredient. Instead, opt for complete or incomplete protein sources that have not been highly processed such as egg whites or nuts. I highly recommend Rx bars and it does not contain protein isolates or concentrates, but egg whites and nuts as the main protein source.
2) sugar and artificial sugar in protein bars
It should be common knowledge that too much added sugar is bad for our health. On average, Americans are consuming 19 teaspoons or about 76g of added sugar a day. For adults, the daily recommendation is between 6-9 teaspoons a day. Companies have made a huge effort in reducing their added sugar content in bars; however, they have maintained the sweetness in other ways including the use of artificial sweeteners.
A lot of companies now promote their protein bars as “sugar-free.” More often, you’ll find artificial sweetener added to maintain the sweetness. The research is still inconclusive whether artificial sweetener has detrimental effects on our health, and until we are 100% confident of the long term effects, I do not recommend artificial sweetener to the average healthy adult.
What to look for in protein bars
Steer clear from bars with added sugar, which is disguised under different names such as dextrose or syrup. Also, avoid bars with artificial sweetener, which also uses different names such as saccharin, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. Instead, opt for protein bars with natural sugar such as sugar coming from fruits. One prime example is Lara bars. Some Lara bars have zero added sugar, but close to 18g of natural sugar coming from fruits. You’ll get a spike of energy for a bit, but this isn’t a meal replacement or daily snack. Natural sugar is great, but too much is bad (gotta balance it with other nutrients!).
protein bars are recommended when
There may be certain situations when a protein bar may come in handy.
Here are a few of my personal reasons when I carry a protein bar:
1) You are very hungry.
There may be a time you forgot lunch, or running too many errands and you are so hungry. It’s better to eat a few bites of a protein bar than gorge yourself as soon as you get your hands on something. Carrying a protein bar in your car or your purse may help with hunger pains. I also posted a few quick and easy to-go breakfast essentials you can take with you on your errands or to work to avoid any hangry moments.
2) You are doing endurance physical activity.
You bike, run, or perform long endurance activities. A protein bar would be easy and convenient to quickly nourish your body. For example, when my husband and I embark on a long, 9 hour hike, I take a protein bar with me because it’s small and easy to pack. I usually bring a sandwich as my main meal, but I eat my protein bar in case I start to feel some hunger pains.
3) You are traveling.
Most food in the airport isn’t appetizing. Plus, it’s uncomfortable to sit for long periods of time on a plane after a big meal. A protein bar is easy to pack and can sustain you until you get to your destination, or a restaurant with good, quality food.
Best healthy Protein Bars to eat
As many new protein bars hit our grocery store shelves every day, it’s impossible to keep track of all of them. So, I’ve only listed a few of my favorite protein bars (in no specific order) below.
Rx Bars have fewer ingredients, less protein than other comparable bars, and no added sugar (or artificial sweetener). Rx bars recently came out with Rx Kids. They are smaller in size, which means less calories. You don’t need to be a kid to eat Rx Kids. It’s perfect to control portion size.
Lara bars are definitely one of my favorites. They’re made with 6-8 ingredients, all which I can pronounce. I wouldn’t categorize these bars as protein bars because the protein is low and similar to what you would eat if you just ate the real foods, but I’ll call them protein bars for simplicity.
10 Healthy Homemade protein Bars
Searching for the healthiest protein bar can be overwhelming. Plus, store bought protein bars aren’t cheap. Fortunately, there’s an alternative to help you eat healthy. It requires a little bit of time and effort, but the benefits are long-lasting.
I love making homemade protein bars made with ingredients that I trust and are healthy for me. I’ve teamed up with ten Registered Dietitians who have shared their favorite homemade protein bars that are easy to make and delicious to eat!
Throw all 7 ingredients in a food processor, press it in a baking dish, and bam – it’s figalicious! No baking needed, no added sugar, and suitable for anyone gluten free or vegan.
It may taste like dessert, but don’t be fooled. Filled with highly nutritious ingredients that will keep your belly happy and full, these bites can be eaten any time of day (yes, even for dessert!).
These are as delicious and healthy as they are pretty. And, there’s a catch for coffee lovers – added instant coffee for a slight “kick.” Also, check out this dietitian’s coconut blueberry quinoa bars.
Try these healthy, homemade granola bars cause they are made with the best protein sources. It’s the perfect balance of nutrients as a snack, post-workout, dessert, or any “grab-and-go” situation.
Who said gingerbread flavoring only had to be in cookies? You’re in luck as this dietitian perfected healthy gingerbread granola bars. There’s even a how-to tutorial video to walk you through the quick, 7 step process.
A super clean nutrition bar with heart healthy fats, fiber, and protein. This dietitian recommends adding it to Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or even to your favorite ice cream for a healthy addition.
Grab 6 ingredients to make these dessert-like power packed bites filled with heart healthy fats. This dietitian recommends pairing it with a piece of fruit for long-lasting energy.
All you need are dates, 3 different kinds of nuts, and sea salt – that’s it! Four main ingredients, and four steps later, you’ve got yourself a nutritionally dense, healthy nutrition bar.
My favorite part of this recipe is the versatility. Don’t have walnuts? Use almonds. No maple syrup? Try honey. Dislike tahini? Add peanut butter. There’s a substitute for every ingredient.
If you’re craving something sweet, and healthy – this is your bar. It’s a healthier version to your S’mores Quest Bar without protein isolates or concentrates.
What did you learn about protein bars? Please share if this was helpful in determining your protein bar choice. Or, better yet, did you make your own homemade protein bar?