As a personal trainer, I’m always on the go. My gym bag, car, desk, and purse always have snacks readily available. Things like nuts, fruit, cheese wheels, hard boiled eggs, veggies & hummus, rice cakes & peanut butter, turkey roll-ups—snacks that require minimal effort, but will fuel me until my next meal. I often include whey protein powder and protein bars to help tide me over as well. But bars, in particular, should be eaten sparingly and not as a primary meal source. Instead, eat real food! We’ll get into the why below, but trust me. It’s in your best benefit, despite the ease and sheer quantity of bars on the market. With a little preparation, you can stay stocked and ready for whatever may pop up in your day.
First of all, I get it. Some days prep just isn’t going to happen! So, here’s what to look for when purchasing the best possible protein bars.
Watch the Calories
Like all packaged foods, make sure to read the label. Most meal replacement bars are 400+ calories (that’s equivalent to eating one egg, two egg whites, three slices of light toast, strawberries, and a veggie sausage patty)! If you’re eating a bar for a snack, it should be closer to 200 calories.
Beware of Certain Ingredients
This is the big one! The first five ingredients (of any label) make up the bulk of the nutrients. If you see these listed as some of the top ingredients, I would recommend skipping that bar altogether.
- Soy Protein Isolate & Soy Lecithin: “Seriously processed soy junk…” says Lauren Slayton, MS, RD, author of “The Little Book of Thin”
- High Fructose Corn Syrup & Sucralose: “High-fructose corn syrup is generally a clue that the bar company doesn’t care about high-quality ingredients,” says Slayton
- Sugar alcohols, which show up on labels as erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysate
- Inulin: “When consumed in large amounts, it can actually do the opposite of promote healthy digestion—it can give you an upset stomach, diarrhea, gas, bloating, or constipation,” says McKel Hill, MS, RD, creator of Nutrition Stripped
- Soluble Corn Fiber: May result in gastrointestinal effects
Macronutrients Are Key
Macronutrients are those nutritional components of your diet that are needed in relatively large amounts. You need protein, carbohydrates, fat, and macrominerals. It’s a great idea in general to start getting into the habit of reading nutritional labels so you understand what gaps are being filled in your daily macronutrient intake, especially in regards to protein. The average person can only absorb 25-30 grams of protein in one sitting; the rest will go to waste.
Things to look for in protein bars:
- Serving size (bars are often two servings)
- Relatively low carbs (under 20g)
- Fiber (soluble is best – 5g)
- Protein, not soy (no more than 30g)
- Fat (less than 10g)
Don’t Skip Meals
Protein bars are quick, convenient, and relatively well-priced compared to some other packaged options you have available in a pinch. But there are plenty of healthy homemade recipe alternatives like these energy bites (and budget-friendly options compared to a box of bars) out there, that will help you keep better control of the ingredients. In fact, at Build-a-Bar you can design your own.
When chosen correctly, having a couple bars that you enjoy on hand is a great guard against those times when you’re desperate for a snack or without a meal. If given the choice between a higher-calorie—but more nutritionally dense—salad and a protein bar, the salad likely offers greater benefits. If your options are between the drive-thru and a protein bar, however, the bar will hopefully prove just as satisfying with fewer calories.
Lastly, if you know a boost of protein is needed in your diet, consider food options naturally high in protein such as fish, turkey, and eggs. And keep in mind that some protein options are better than others.
So do yourself a favor and plan the best you can ahead of time; or grab a good bar, then get to a well-balanced meal!