Updated: Jul 8
First of all, I eat and love protein bars! I’m not here to rain on anyone’s protein parade, but walk down the grocery aisle and you’ll quickly notice many varieties of protein bars plastered with different health claims, like “organic”, ”fermented”, and “natural”.
What people fail to realize is that some protein bars have more sugar than candy bars. Although protein bars do offer some nutrition on the go, they are often marketed as nutritious and filling, but they are NOT health foods or meal replacements, and it’s important for people to avoid using them as food crutches. I’ll break down what they are, and how to choose the healthiest ones! Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll be able to make a more informed choice about which protein bar is right for you.
There’s a general fear of protein deficiency out there, even if practically zero cases have ever been reported in the modernized western world. More than 95% of North America’s population is deficient in fiber though, but no one seems to care, since we’re too busy worrying about protein. Where does this protein hype come from?
In the 1970s, dairy corporations were looking for a way to increase profits and efficiency. Cheese making led to the formation of large quantities of wasted milk protein by-products, whey and casein. To avoid waste and increase efficiency and profit, these by-products were extracted, then powdered into protein isolates that we call whey protein powder. These products were among the first protein supplements directly marketed to body builders, and soon enough, they were being marketed to athletes all over. Shortly after, protein supplements were being sold in the form of powders, bars and drinks. People soon associated athletic performance to health, and corporations noticed as well. Protein bars and supplements quickly went hand in hand with health in general, and everyone, including non-athletes, began consuming large quantities of protein bars, mistaking them for health foods. I can’t stress this enough, protein bars aren’t health foods, they’re supplements dressed up as a convenient way of getting quick macronutrients, and most of us don’t even need them.
Protein bars have long been associated with health, strength and feelings of fullness. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great qualities to have. But is any of that true?
PROTEIN BARS FOR HEALTH?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients necessary for survival and reproduction. It plays a vital role in many biological processes (as do carbohydrates and fat), but isn’t necessarily more important than the other 2 macros. Most nutrition experts agree that the average person requires 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which equates to about 60 grams in the average 70 kg adult. Athletes will require more for muscle growth and repair, and endurance athletes should consume between 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram. Strength athletes looking for muscle building should consume a little more, about 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram. If you’re consuming more than you need, these excess grams of protein simply get converted and stored as energy (aka fat).
For the average person requiring 60 grams of protein per day, one must recognize that most protein bars, or powders, contain up to 20-30 grams per serving. I’ve seen 120 pound patients consuming over 100 grams of protein per day thinking that this made them “healthier”. Excess protein consumption will basically be metabolized into glucose (blood sugar) and used as fuel or stored as fat, and protein is an inefficient source of energy compared to carbs. Having “excess” protein doesn’t confer any special health benefits. Having “adequate” protein according to your activity level and weight, is what you should aim for. Remember that excess protein, in the form of protein bars or drinks will simply lead to excess calories, and that will lead to weight gain in the form of fat, not muscle. Eating adequate calories, with adequate protein intake and micronutrients is what will make you healthier, not protein bars.
PROTEIN FOR STRENGTH
People associate protein consumption with being strong. And I agree, adequate consumption of protein, as described above, is great for muscle mass maintenance, but if you’re eating excess amounts, that protein is simply gonna get turned into glucose and used as fuel or stored as fat. Make sure to eat the protein amounts you need, eating more has no added benefits if you‘re eating adequate calories. Strength and resistance training makes you stronger, not protein bars.
PROTEIN FOR FULLNESS
Most people associate protein with feelings of fullness after a meal, and they’re not wrong! The protein content of a meal, compared to a calorie equivalent meal with less protein, will make you feel fuller longer, but only if their fiber content is the same. Yup, you read that right. Not only is fiber more filling, fullness from fiber will last longer and will lead to decreased calorie consumption at the next meal. How is that even possible you ask? By engaging our ”ileal brake”. Fiber from the meal we had hours before feeds our gut bacteria, and in return, they release SCFA (short chain fatty acid) that cross the blood brain barrier and tell our brain to put on the brakes and eat less! So once you’ve achieved your protein goals for the day, focus on adding more high fiber foods to your diet. They will keep you fuller for longer, and since fiber traps nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals, you’ll get healthier in the process. So remember, although protein content does help with fullness, fiber content will help more, and studies do show that vegetable protein is more satiating than animal protein. So once your protein goals have been achieved for the day, focus on whole, fiber rich plant foods for health, not protein bars.
HOW TO CHOOSE A GOOD PROTEIN BAR?
Many protein bars are basically chocolate bars disguised as health foods. They can contain high quantities of unhealthy fats and added sugars and minimal fiber. This is what to look for in a protein bar:
- protein: try to find plant proteins, like pea or brown rice protein. Whey and casein have been linked to increased risk of hormone dependent cancers, like prostate cancer. A good amount of protein per bar would be 10-15 grams
- carbs: look for bars with about 20 grams of carbs or less, unless those carbs are fiber!
- fats: not all fats are the enemy! A healthier bar shouldn’t contain any trans fats, and less than 3 grams of saturated fats is better
- oils: oils like palm or kernel oil are filled with inflammatory saturated fats and have no place in protein bars. They‘re often used in the chocolate coating
- fiber: now that you know that fiber is more filling than protein and is associated with decreased calorie consumption at the next meal, try looking for bars with at least 3 grams of fiber. I eat one with 8+ grams!
- added sugar: if sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose is the first ingredient on the list, step away from the protein bar, quickly!
After all, if you‘re looking for a quick source of protein and energy, whole food sources like a banana with peanut butter, or dates with nuts are better than any processed food, including protein bars. But if convenience is what you’re looking for, then choose a minimally processed protein bar, preferably containing plant-protein and containing the least possible amount of ingredients possible.
We eat protein bars when it’s more convenient, on a hike or when bringing a cooler is too complicated, but we try to rely on whole foods whenever possible. Lara bars are probably the healthiest, with minimal ingredients all derived from whole foods, but fermented vegan protein + by Genuine Health is our favourite! They contain 14 grams of protein, including pea and brown rice protein, combined with 8 grams of fiber (explaining the higher total carb content of 26 grams). I’m not saying protein bars are bad, but when used in the right circumstances, they can be very useful. So choose whole foods when possible, or try to choose the healthiest protein bar you can!
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. Me and my wife Melissa are now 2X World Ninja Championship qualified athletes and you can follow our journey on IG!
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