You’re trying to be healthy while balancing work, life, and self-care. That alone can seem almost impossible. You probably squeeze in a trip to the gym before the heading out to work or manage five minutes of sleepy meditation as you lie in bed at the end of the day. Healthy eating, however, can be harder to manage because of your already-busy schedule. Salads aren’t easy to eat on the run, and sometimes you realize you’re starving and need to eat something STAT.
Enter protein bars. These snack bars have become popular with women who are on the go. Protein bars can be slipped in your purse and eaten anywhere, giving you a boost of energy and satisfying your hunger. They’re promoted as a healthy snack for people in a hurry, but unfortunately that isn’t always true.
“People think protein bars are healthy because they are almost always all marketed that way,” says Amanda Santucci, a certified nutritionist who writes at The Skinny Spice. She goes on to say that most healthy-looking protein bar ingredients are disguising their massive amounts of sugar.
Erin Akey, another certified nutritionist, agrees.
“The sad truth is that most protein bars are just glorified candy bars,” she says.
So how do you know whether your protein bar is a healthy snack or a candy bar in disguise? Read on so you can make an informed choice that’s in line with your health goals the next time you reach for a nutritious snack while you’re on the go.
What is protein and why is it important?
Protein is a macronutrient just like fat and carbohydrates are. Protein is found in every cell of your body and is particularly important for building and repairing tissue (such as muscle). Your body can store carbohydrates and fat but not protein, so it’s important to eat it throughout the day so that your body has enough. Protein can encourage fat burning and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
The benefits of protein make it a popular snack choice for many people, although there has been some debate over just how much protein the average person needs. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion suggests that Americans get 10 to 25 percent of their daily calorie intake from protein. That leaves a pretty wide range, however. Another option for evaluating how much protein you need is to use a calculator like this one from the Department of Agriculture (or just multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 0.36).
When are protein bars a good option?
Protein is found in foods like meats, fish, and beans, none of which are particularly easy to eat on the go. If you need a healthy snack to take with you, protein bars can fill a void.
“I recommend protein bars to clients when I see they need something they can just carry in their purse and have as a snack, especially if their intake of protein tends to be low,” says Gabriella Vetere, a registered dietitian and certified specialist in obesity and weight management. “I think protein bars can be a good fit for most people.”
However, it’s important to remember that protein bars should be used as a snack, not as a meal replacement.
“Meals should be centered around a plate and contain lean protein, fruits, vegetables and high fiber starches,” Vetere says.
Protein bars contain only around 200 calories and do not have enough nutrients to be considered a meal, says Santucci.
“It can be unhealthy to begin replacing meals with protein bars, because you get so many more nutrients from real whole food, especially when it comes to veggies and fruits,” she says.
Still, if you’re in a pinch, eating a protein bar is better than skipping a meal. “If somebody is running late and has no time to eat a meal, it’s okay to grab a ‘clean’ protein bar rather than just skipping a meal,” Santucci says.
Pam Pinto, who owns Act Natural Health and Wellness, a health-focused store that offers nutritional consulting, says that she often sees customers who are confused on this point.
“I feel the big misunderstanding about protein bars is that they can replace a meal,” she says. “Customers think they are doing something healthy. What they don’t understand is that they are consuming a glorified candy bar. Granted the ingredients are whole food and contain fiber but there is still an energy rush from the fruit.”
Use these tips to choose a healthy protein bar.
Experts agree that protein bars can be a viable option for people who are trying to eat healthy on the fly. However, it’s important to know what to look for to ensure that your bar is providing you with valuable nutrition, not just a sugar rush.
No matter what kind of protein bar you choose, be realistic about what you’re getting.
“One of the biggest things people need to realize is that unless you are making them yourself at home, there will be some processing,” says certified nutritionist Akey.
“The goal is to find one with as little processing as possible and also one that is high in protein, low in sugar, and low in carbs not backed by fiber.”
To find healthier protein bar options, Akey recommends this trick: Head to the pharmacy section of whatever store you’re in.
“As a general rule of thumb in the grocery store, any protein bar being sold in the pharmacy is usually a better choice than one on the cereal aisle,” she says. “Truthfully I cannot think of one brand from the cereal aisle that is any better than a candy bar.”
Once you’re in the pharmacy area, there are certain things you’ll want to look for on the nutritional labels and ingredient lists. First of all, make sure that the bar you’re considering actually contains a solid serving of protein.
Lindsey Mathews, head certified nutritionist and trainer at IdealFit, a women’s fitness and nutrition company that also sells protein bars, recommends looking for a bar that has about 200 calories and equal grams of carbohydrates and protein.
“It’s called a ‘protein bar’ for a reason, so check the macros and make sure there is a good amount of protein in it,” she says. “If the carbs are double the protein, then you’re looking at a glorified candy bar.”
In general, you want the bar to be providing protein as the main source of nutrition (and the main source of calories). For that to be the case, the bar needs about a 1:1 protein-to-carb ratio. A bar with between 12 and 20 grams of protein is usually a good option, says registered dietician Vetere.
If you’re trying to shed pounds, she recommends choosing a bar that is significantly lower in carbs.
“For people trying to lose weight, I would recommend a protein bar that is low in carbs and ideally [has] a larger proportion [of nutrients] coming from fat and protein,” she says.
One huge area of concern when it comes to protein bars is how much sugar they contain, so be sure to check the sugar content before you bite in. Vetere recommends keeping the carbohydrates (including sugar) under 30 grams per serving and avoiding bars that contain processed sugar.
“Make sure the sources do not come from high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, [or] cane sugar,” she says. The best choice is to opt for bars that are sweetened using fruit.
Get interested in the ingredients.
Looking at the nutritional label is a practice to begin understanding what’s in your protein bar. After doing that, however, it’s important to take things a bit further by looking at the ingredient list.
“My top tip for deciding on a protein bar is to remember that they are not always healthy, so be sure to thoroughly read the ingredients and make sure you know exactly what’s in it,” says Santucci.
Pinto, who owns the health food store, says she only stocks protein bars made with whole foods like dates, nuts, and seeds.
“Food is food and if you give the body what it needs, no matter if you are working out or want a healthy snack, the body is going to utilize the ingredients for energy production, taste, and satisfaction,” she says.
Pinto recommends looking at the source of protein—whether it is whey, soy, eggs, or something else—to better understand what you’re putting in your body. She also cautions that you should not be swayed by advertising that promises “natural” flavoring.
“The term ‘natural’ is not regulated by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] so it’s a free for all,” she says. “Most ‘natural’ flavors are made in a lab by the perfume industry, can come from animal sources, and can be MSG [monosodium glutamate] in disguise. So, usually I look for whole food ingredients such as fruits and nuts.”
The Best Bars on the Shelves
Choosing a healthy protein bar can be a lot of work, so we asked the experts to weigh in on their favorites. Here are their recommendations:
These bars are so clean that the ingredients are listed in bold type right on the front of their wrappers. When you only use a handful of recognizable ingredients, you’re able to do that.
RXBAR, according to the brand’s website, was founded in 2013 to “call B.S. on protein bars.”
“We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a more nutritious protein bar out there,” the company’s story reads. So, they set out to make one that’s left nutritionists raving.
LÄRABAR likes to keep it simple, making protein bars from fruit and nuts, flavored with other wholesome ingredients. They are vegan and also have organic options, and the dates in the bars will give you an all-natural energy boost.
“They encompasses all of the good things in a bar,” Pinto says.
KiZe bars promise to “fuel your best,” and with limited, all-natural ingredients, they’re a great option. KiZe has non-GMO and gluten-free options, so they are a great brand to try if you have dietary restrictions.
Quest bars contain very little sugar but boast healthy doses of protein and fiber. That makes them a favorite of Akey, the certified nutritionist.
“I love these for my clients,” she says. “This is a very nutritionally sound brand.”
These protein bars sold by IdealFit are designed specifically for women. They have 200 calories, more than 20 grams of protein, and half of your daily fiber requirement. They’re sweetened using monk fruit and stevia, which keeps their sugar content low and gives you an ideal on-the-go snack.
Other Healthy Snacking Options
If you can’t find a protein bar that fits your needs, it’s surprisingly easy to make your own protein bar-inspired snacks at home.
“Making your own at home is great because you know exactly what natural ingredients are in them as opposed to the disguised sugars in most store bought items,” says Santucci.
She suggests mixing nut butter with pumpkin or sunflower seeds, adding cinnamon (which may boost your metabolism), incorporating a high-quality protein powder, and sprinkling in oats and a few dark chocolate chips. Roll the concoction into little balls and store them in the fridge to grab when you’re in a hurry.
Other healthy high-protein snacks include hard-boiled eggs, nuts, Greek yogurt, and hummus.
Whatever you choose to snack on—whether it’s a protein bar or something else—make sure you know what you’re putting in your body. Knowledge is power, and with a little extra attention to protein, you can keep yourself looking and feeling great.