Protein bars are a convenient snack that many people use as a quick fuel source or to fill the gaps between meals. However, deciphering the ingredients list on protein bars can be tricky and leave you wondering if they are actually good for your health.
The key is to educate yourself about the contents of protein bars. While some options are unhealthy, there are also plenty of healthier alternatives available.
Many people assume that protein bars must be healthy because they’re called “protein bars.” All of us know that our body needs protein in order to function properly but. Why does your body need protein?
Protein is truly one of the building blocks of human existence. Protein can be found in every cell of your body and it has many important jobs to build:
- Repair and produce new cells
Now, dissimilar to carbohydrates and fats, your body can’t store protein. This means that you must regularly get it from your diet to replenish your supply.
The Best Protein Sources
Given the benefits above about protein, it stands to reason that you want to include a variety of protein-rich foods in your diet. Some of the best sources of dietary protein include:
- Leafy Greens and other vegetables: Broccoli, asparagus, broccoli sprouts, avocado, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, cauliflower, arugula, turnip greens, beet greens, mushrooms
- Nuts and Nut Butters: Walnuts, almonds, and pistachios
- Eggs: Pastured or Omega-3 eggs
- Dairy: Goat cheese, Southern European A2 milk and yogurts, and sheep
- Fish: Salmon, tuna
- Poultry: Pasture-raised
- Meat Alternatives: Quorn, Tempeh
- Red Meat: 100% grass-fed meats
How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein (at a minimum) is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Though, if you are very active, pregnant, or breastfeeding, you might need to have more protein then the recommendation.
The USDA has a calculator to make this math much easier and understandable.
Are Protein Bars Healthy?
While sourcing protein from natural foods is ideal, a busy lifestyle can make it difficult to obtain all the necessary nutrients your body needs. However, before reaching for a protein bar, it’s important to distinguish the good from the bad.
Not all protein bars are created equal, as each bar can differ significantly in calorie content, sugar levels, and additives. In fact, some protein bars are essentially candy bars in disguise. To determine whether a protein bar is a healthy choice, here are five factors to consider:
What is the Protein Source?
On the back of a protein bar, you will usually find three main types of protein: whey-protein (derived from milk), calcium caseinate (dairy-based), and plant-based proteins (such as peas, brown rice, and hemp).
For a healthier option, choose protein bars that use hemp-based protein or healthy nuts as their main protein source. It is recommended that protein bars contain at least 5 grams of protein, but if you are very active, look for bars that contain closer to 20 grams of protein.
What About the Sugar Content?
Some protein bars can carry up to 30 grams of sugar! Clearly these bars are a bad choice to eat. Don’t be fooled by the sugar substitutes either. Many studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may also be at the root of weight gain.
Always check the ingredient label and look for protein bars that are sweetened with gut healthy alternatives such as, sugar alcohols, monk fruit sweetener, or stevia.
What is the Fiber Content?
Fiber makes you feel full. Having a good amount of fiber content in a protein bar will keep you feeling full until your next meal. This also helps you from snacking on anything else. Fiber content should be at least 5 grams per bar.
What About Mysterious Ingredients?
It is common to see an extensive list of ingredients on a protein bar package. If you don’t recognize the ingredients, they are most likely chemical based. So, put that protein bar back down or throw it away. What you want to see, is a list of recognizable whole foods like:
- Hemp Seeds
- Almond Butter
- Ground Flaxseeds
- Dark Chocolate
- Vanilla extract
But… If you read any of these ingredients, drop that protein bar:
- Palm Oil
- Partly hydrogenated oil
- Soy Protein Isolate
- Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- High-fructose Corn Syrup
- Food Coloring/ Dyes
- Artificial Sugars
Tip: A healthy protein bar should ideally be a small list of recognizable ingredients.
Why Are You Eating a Protein Bar?
Many protein bars are designed to be a meal replacement, while others are just made for snacking. But, if you don’t read the label, you might not know the difference. A meal replacement bar will generally be up past 300 calories, but a snack bar should have less than 200 calories.
When Should You Eat a Protein Bar?
Well, if you absolutely need to supplement a meal or snack, then that’s a good time. If you’re constantly active or exercising a lot and feel that you’re not getting your protein needs met, that could also be a good time.
However, generally speaking, if you’re eating a nutritious, whole foods diet, you don’t need protein bars to supplement protein.
So, Are Protein Bars Healthy for You? The Bottom Line
Protein bars can be a healthy option if you find a good one, but they can also be expensive and unnecessary. Instead of relying on protein bars, there are two better options: making your own or getting enough protein from whole foods. You can easily meet your daily protein goals by incorporating whole-food proteins into your diet.
Making your own protein bars is a great way to have control over the ingredients you consume. Here is a simple and easy recipe you can try!
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Calories: 72 kcal
- 1/3 cup nuts such as cashews or almonds or both.
- ¼ cup about 3 large dates, pits removed
- ¼ cup raisins
- dash of cinnamon
- Put nuts into a food processor and chop into small pieces.
- Remove and put in bowl.
- Put dates and raisins (or any combination of the two that equals ½ cup total) into the food processor and pulse until playdough consistency. It will start to clump together when it is done.
- Add fruit paste to the chopped nuts and mix them by hand until well incorporated and the consistency of stiff playdough or cookie dough. You could also do this in the food processor.
- Roll between two sheets of wax paper to ½ inch thickness and cut into bars. Or make it really easy and just roll into energy balls!
- Wrap in wax paper, plastic wrap, or snack-size Ziploc bags (or glass containers if you aren’t giving to kids) and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Serving: 1 bar | Calories: 72 kcal | Carbohydrates: 12.2 g | Protein: 1.5 g | Fat: 2.7 g | Saturated Fat: 0.2 g | Sodium: 1 mg | Fiber: 1.5 g | Sugar: 9 g