Protein Bars – Are they Really Healthy for You?
Many people consume protein bars assuming that they are a healthy food choice and a source of quality protein. I would disagree with both of these assumptions. While it’s true that most protein bars are better for you than a standard chocolate or candy bar and are a quick/convenient option when it’s not possible to consume a meal or a shake, they rarely ever compare to real food meals, cooked with high quality ingredients and minimal additives. While this may break the hearts of many habitual/daily protein bar consumers, I’m willing to accept that risk and here are few things to consider regarding your beloved protein bars:
- Processed foods. I try to encourage clients to consume more real, whole foods and fewer processed food. A processed food means it’s been changed or manipulated in some way to suit a non-nutritional need of the company making it or for improving the consumer’s taste experience in some way. In general, this reduces the quality of the food you are getting, and destroys or eliminates many of the healthy components of that food.
- Protein degradation. How well we digest, absorb and retain the protein we eat has a lot to do with the quality of the original protein coming in. The protein found in most protein bars has been processed, heated, received additives and likely sat around for up to a year on a shelf – all of which can negatively impact the overall quality of that protein (bioavailability). The lower the quality coming in and less you will be able to actually use that protein. The protein found in the average protein bar will never be used as efficiently as protein found in recently cooked real food meals or even a shake made with a high-quality whey protein.
- Additives/Preservatives. In order to preserve the shelf life as well as maintain shape and integrity of the bar, most protein bars will add several “extra” ingredients that do nothing to improve your diet and can even trigger some gastric distress and bloating in about 1 in 4 that consume them. These ingredients are usually buried in nutrition information labels with 10 or more ingredients and names the average person would not be able to pronounce.
- Non-natural ingredients. Many bars contain ingredients that nature never really intended for human consumption. Things like sugar alcohols, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, inulin and many other added man-made chemicals and sweetening agents can wreak havoc on the digestive system of many people with things like upset stomach, gas, bloating, constipation and cramping.
- Artificial sweeteners. Just because something is listed as having “zero calories” does not mean it’s healthy or has no impact on your body’s physiology. Such is the case for most artificial sweeteners. While most labels would have you believe that the flavoring agents (artificial and natural) are harmless, an understanding of nutrition and physiology will suggest otherwise. Artificial sweeteners can have a significant negative impact on your progress for most individuals. You can read my other blog post article on artificial sweeteners for a little more explanation of this.
- Hidden carbs/sugar alcohols. As one way to improve the taste of a bar, the common trend lately is for many companies to hide their carb content in what health agencies have called sugar alcohols. They are listed as either “zero impact carbs” or labeled as fibers. In reality, these are really just modified chains of carbohydrate molecules that have slightly different actions in the body during digestion. Some have a similar net outcome in the body as if you had just consumed real sugar (from an insulin response perspective) and others can disrupt normal digestive processes in some individuals with sensitive digestive systems. If you have made improving your physique a priority, you should really consider sugar alcohols as counted towards your daily macros and not as completely harmless ingredients with zero impact on our overall
- Combination of sugars and fats in same serving. One of the fundamentals that I try to advocate for those trying to lean out their physiques is that we should try to limit the consumption of sugars (or ingredients that trigger an insulin response) while simultaneously consuming large amounts of fats. The rationale here is if insulin is being triggered and insulin is a storage hormone, the fate of the fats circulating in your blood after that meal would tend to be driven into fat cells, rather than allow to circulate and be used to fuel low intensity activity. The trouble with many protein bars is that they tend to combine large amounts of fats (i.e. 15 grams or more) with either 25 + grams of sugar-rich carbohydrates OR ingredients that illicit a similar type of insulin response you would get from consuming those same amounts of carbs.
I will say that there are a few decent, reasonably healthy protein bars that would be your best options. Without getting into naming specific bars, here are some general things you want to look for and consider if you must go the protein bar route:
-Fewer the ingredients the better. Keep the ingredient list under 10 ingredients as a general rule to eliminate many of the artificial junk and hidden carbs found in many bars.
-Look for bars that may be stored in a fridge. These would generally contain fewer additives and would be fresher.
-Don’t feel you have to eat the whole bar. For many clients, you will be having a protein bar as a small snack or something to curb a craving. In those cases, try to train yourself to take a few bites and then put away for later.
-Look for 20 grams of protein or more per 200 calories. If your protein bar only contains about 12-15 grams of protein, you might have gotten that from a candy bar or milkshake.
-Consider the protein source used. Things like a natural whey protein will be better digested/absorbed than soy, gelatin, milk, casein, etc.
-Pick your “poison” . Either go with a keto style bar that’s rich in fats and lower in carb content or vice versa – a bar that’s lower in fats and contains some carbs from a quality source.
-Be aware of sugar alcohols such as xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol and erythritol
-Be aware that dried fruit counts as sugars
-Zero calories or zero carbs isn’t always better. In many cases you are better off having a bar that contains 25 grams of real food source carbohydrates vs. a bar that hides 20 or more grams of sugar alcohols and fibers.
-Plan ahead and pack meals so you won’t need to turn to a protein bar. There are plenty of quick and easy real food meals you can make that would be far better options than a run-of-the-mill protein bar.
Having the occasional protein bar once a week is not going to do any significant damage or prevent you from reaching your goals, but they should be considered a “treat” instead of a replacement for real food if you are making your physique a priority.
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