Today I’m answering a question that I get pretty regularly: are protein bars and snack bars healthy? I don’t blame anyone for asking this because protein bars are everywhere. Many companies claim their bars to be the next best thing for weight loss, enhancing your workouts and keeping energy levels up. While I wish I could give you all a simple “yes” or “no” answer, it’s not that easy! In fact, I have so much to share with you about protein bars and snack bars that it warrants an entire blog post.
Let’s dive in!
Whole Foods & Meals Come First.
One thing I have against bars is the fact that people tend to use them as meal replacements. While I know there are healthy bars out there (see my list of favorite bars at the end of this post!), you should always focus on eating a substantial meal before turning to a bar to halt your hunger. If you’re using them as a meal replacement, you’re missing out on all the whole, healthy foods like veggies and fruits that provide your body with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants that bars often lack.
Now, I know there’s a time and place for using bars as meal replacements. Maybe you’re having a hectic day and don’t have time to sit down to a meal. It happens. Maybe you’re on a road trip or hiking and your protein bars are the best source of fuel that you have. Maybe you need quick energy before a workout. Whatever your reason, I understand that bars can be extremely convenient – just make sure to assess why you’re eating the bar instead of a full meal. If you find that you’re replacing meals with snack bars more often than not, it might be time to make some changes to your lifestyle so you can get those fresh veggies in your diet!
But What About the Protein?
It is simply a myth that you need to consume bars for the protein. The fitness industry is great at making you believe that eating this protein bar or that protein bar is essential for fueling for, or recovering from a workout. Sure, the bars have lots of protein, but want to know what else has protein? Eggs. Fish. Meat. Poultry. Yogurt (especially Greek!). Cheese. Milk. Nuts. Seeds. Almonds. Beans. Lentils. Quinoa. All of these are whole foods that will provide your body with the protein you need. So, next time you need a workout snack, why not try a hard-boiled egg? String cheese? Greek yogurt with fruit?
A couple other side notes about protein for workouts:
-Unless you’re working out vigorously for an hour or longer, you probably don’t need much of a refuel afterwards. You can wait until your next meal to get your protein in (unless you feel hungry, of course!).
-It has been scientifically proven that our bodies are unable to absorb much more than 30 grams of protein at a meal, so really, don’t overthink your protein intake. If you eat a pretty well-balanced diet, you probably don’t need protein bars and the like to supplement your protein intake. Of course there are certain populations who need more protein than others, but that’s a topic for another day!
What Ingredients Should I Look For in a Bar?
There are a few different nutrition-related factors you should consider when purchasing bars. First off, always check the nutrition facts and ingredient list. Just because it’s labeled as “healthy” doesn’t mean that it actually is. Many bars are overloaded with added sugar, unhealthy fats and oils, and other additives that aren’t going to make you feel so great.
- Sugar: Look for a bar with as little added sugar as possible. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any added sugar – if it’s sweetened, your best bet is to find one that’s naturally sweetened with dates or another type of fruit. Check the ingredient list for this info. Note that I am not anti-sugar, but some bars really do go overboard on their sugar content so it’s important to pay attention to this.
- Fiber: Fiber keeps you full, and if you’re going to snack on a bar then it’s best to find one that will do just that…keep you full! Look for one that packs in at least 2-4 grams of fiber per serving.
- Trans Fat: If a bar has trans fat, put it back! Trans fat has been shown to increase heart disease risk, and is actually supposed to be banned from the US food supply starting in June 2018. If you see partially hydrogenated oil listed in the ingredients, then it contains trans fat. Fact: just because the nutrition facts label says 0 g trans fat doesn’t actually mean it’s trans fat free. Companies are allowed to list 0 grams if the item contains less than 0.5 grams per serving, so you really do need to check that ingredient list every time. Luckily, many brands have recognized the negative health effects of trans fat and have already removed it from their products, but it’s still good to double-check.
- Protein: Just like fiber, protein promotes fullness and it also helps keep your muscles strong. Bars that lack protein aren’t going to keep you full for very long, so search for one that has at least 6 grams of protein per serving. Many bar brands up their protein content by adding egg whites, nuts and seeds, or a protein powder variety (I’ve seen protein bars that include whey protein, and I’ve also seen some made with plant-based protein powder as well).
In general, bars made with whole foods such as oats, nuts, seeds and fruit are going to be healthier for you than those made with a bunch of artificial ingredients and additives. It’s all about what going to make you feel your best!
What Bars Are Best?!
There are a few bars out there that I recommend you give a try. Here are some of my favorites:
Lara Bar: These are more of a snack bar than a protein bar, but they are hands-down my favorite. Their Original Fruit & Nut bars are gluten-free, and sweetened with dried fruit such as dates and cherries. They don’t have any added sugar and only contain up to nine ingredients! You can find them in many flavors, including cherry pie, banana bread and chocolate chip cookie dough.
Trader Joe’s Nutty Seedy Fruity Bar: These are a recent discovery of mine and one of the healthiest snack bars I’ve seen ingredient-wise. Their ingredient list is short & sweet – almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, date paste, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil, coconut nectar, chia seeds and dried coconut. Yes, coconut nectar IS sugar, but there are only a total of 6 grams of sugar in one of these delicious bars. Plus, they contain 7 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber which will keep you full!
GoMacro Macrobar: All I have to say about these is YUM. They make for a filling snack, and I’ve even split one in half and enjoyed it as a sweet treat in the evening. They are a bit higher in sugar at around 14 grams per serving, but that’s made up for with the other healthy, high-protein ingredients that they include. You really just can’t go wrong with a chewy, nut-butter based protein bar! They can be found in many different flavors, such as peanut butter chocolate chip, cherries & berries and cashew caramel.
RX Bar: I am so glad I discovered RX bars. They have the simplest ingredient lists that I’ve seen. For example, their chocolate sea salt flavor contain dates, egg whites, cashews, almonds, cacao, cocoa, natural chocolate flavor and sea salt. Nothin’ artificial there! No added sugar, dairy, soy, or gluten either – not that these ingredients make something unhealthy but a definite plus for any of you who can’t eat those ingredients for whatever reason. RX Bar’s motto is “No BS” and each one of their bars provide around 12 grams of protein.
KIND Bars: These are super popular, and for a good reason. They contain little added sugar and quite a bit of protein and fiber from the nuts. You kind find them in several flavors, including blueberry pecan, almond & coconut and peanut butter dark chocolate. I think they could do a bit better with their ingredients (some of their bars are made with over 4 different types of sugar) but once again, they are a better option than many other bars you’ll find on the shelves!
Can I Make Bars on My Own?
Of course! If you want to take it to the next step, it’s definitely possible and pretty easy to make your own healthy snack bars or protein bars. While I don’t have my own bar recipe (closest one I have to a snack bar is my blueberry coconut granola), many of my fellow-bloggers have some delicious recipes you can give a try!
Grain Free Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars from Fit Foodie Finds
Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch Clif Bars from Fit Foodie Finds
5 Ingredient Granola Bars from Minimalist Baker
Homemade Lara Bars from Chocolate Covered Katie
Bottom Line: Protein bars and snack bars have the potential to be healthy & nutritious, which depends on the brand you select. You don’t NEED to include them in your diet – in general, you should aim to get your calories and nutrients from whole foods whenever you can. When you’re in a time-crunch or traveling, protein bars and snack bars make for excellent snacks, sweet treats or even meal replacements.