Protein bars have become a hugely popular grab-and-go-snack in recent years. Some people rely on them to quell midday hunger pangs, while others use them to help fuel a workout.
The trouble is, the ingredients list of many protein bars is rather confusing. This begs the question: are protein bars good for you? Isn’t it better to eat high protein vegetables?
Well, it’s all about learning to understand what’s in your protein bar. Because there are some good options out there, but there are also plenty of bad options.
Many people assume that protein bars must be healthy because they’re called “protein” bars – and we all know that our bodies need protein to function properly. But why does your body need protein? Let’s recap.
Protein is truly one of the building blocks of human existence. It can be found in every cell of your body. Its job is to help build:
- Nails, and
- To repair any injuries to your cells.1
Now, unlike carbohydrates and fats, your body can’t store protein – so you need to regularly get it from your diet to replenish your supply.
The Best Sources Of Protein
Given the benefits of protein for your body, it stands to reason that you want to include as many protein-rich foods in your diet as possible. Some of the best sources of dietary protein are:
- Leafy Greens and other vegetables: Broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, avocado, cauliflower, arugula, turnip greens, mushrooms, beet greens
- Nuts and Nut Butters: such as walnuts, almonds, and pistachios
- Meat Alternatives: Tempeh, Quorn
- Dairy: Southern European A2 milk and yogurts, sheep and goat cheeses
- Eggs: Pastured or Omega-3 eggs
- Fish: Salmon and tuna also have wonderful fatty acids
- Poultry: Limited amounts of pasture-raised poultry
- Red Meat: Limited amounts of grass-fed meats2
Just remember, if you’re following Dr. Gundry’s plan, that he suggests you eat no more than 3 oz of animal protein per day. So try to get the majority of your protein from plant-based sources.
How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein (at a minimum) is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight.3 However, if you’re super active, pregnant, or breastfeeding, you may need more.4 The USDA has a calculator to make this math easier.
Are Protein Bars Healthy?
Now, the best way to source protein is from natural foods like the ones listed above. But sometimes, a busy lifestyle prevents you from eating all the nutrients that your body requires. But before you turn to a protein bar, you need to learn to separate the good from the bad.
As it turns out, no two protein bars are the same. They can vary greatly in the amounts of calories, sugar, and nasty additives they contain. Some protein bars may just as well be labeled as candy bars.
Here are five ways to analyze a protein bar, to see whether it’s a good, healthy choice:
1. What is the Protein Source?
The main types of protein you will find on the back of a protein bar are:
- Whey-protein, derived from milk
- Calcium caseinate (also dairy-based)
- Plant-based proteins, like pea, brown rice, and hemp
Now, if you’re following a lectin-free eating program, you’re going to want to avoid these dairy-derived proteins, as they come from A1 dairy sources. Pea and brown rice sources are also not ideal due to their lectins.
Hemp-based protein bars would be the best choice here. Bars that use healthy nuts as their protein source are another good choice.
Protein bars should have at least 5 grams of protein, and closer to 20 grams if you’ll be exercising, or if you’re very active.
2. What about the Sugar Content?
Did you know that some protein bars carry up to 30 grams of sugar? Clearly, these bars are a bad choice. And don’t be fooled by sugar substitutes, either. Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners may also be at the root of weight gain.5
Always look for protein bars that are sweetened with gut healthy alternative sweeteners, such as sugar alcohols, monk fruit sweetener, or stevia.
3. What is the Fiber Content?
Fiber is filling. This is ideal in a protein bar, because it will keep you feeling full until your next meal – which stops you from snacking on anything else. Fiber content should be at least 5 grams per bar.6
4. Are There Mystery Ingredients?
It’s common to be faced with an exhaustive list of ingredients on a protein bar that looks like a list of chemicals. Guess what? They are chemicals, so put that bar down! What you want to see is a list of recognizable whole foods, like:
- Almond Butter
- Hemp Seeds
- Flax Seeds
- Vanilla extract
- Dark Chocolate
If you see these guys, drop the protein bar and run:
- Partially hydrogenated oils (including palm oil)
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- Soy protein isolate
- Food coloring
- Artificial sugars
- Palm oil
A healthy protein bar should only have recognizable ingredients, and ideally, very few ingredients.
5. Why are You Eating a Protein Bar?
Some bars are designed to be meal replacements, while others are purely snacking food. But if you don’t read the label, you probably won’t know the difference. A meal replacement bar will generally be up past 300 calories, but a snack bar should have less than 200 calories.7
When Should You Eat a Protein Bar?
When should you eat a protein bar? Well, if you absolutely need to supplement a meal or a snack, then that’s a good time. If you’re exercising a lot and feel that you’re not getting your protein needs met, that could also be a good time.
But generally speaking, if you’re eating a nutritious, whole foods diet, you don’t need protein bars to supplement protein.8
Are Protein Bars Good for You: The Bottom Line
So, are protein bars healthy? If you find a good one, they can be. But they’re also costly, and not at all necessary. Two things are far better than reaching for these grab-and-go bars: making your own, or getting enough protein from whole foods.
Making your own protein bars is a powerful way to control what you’re putting into your body. There are plenty of recipes all over the internet, but you’ll want to ensure they meet the “healthy” criteria above.
Better yet, snack on protein-rich whole foods, like a handful of nuts, nut butter with veggie sticks, a hard-boiled egg, an avocado, or try some of Dr. Gundry’s awesome baked artichoke hearts!
A diet rich in whole food proteins will be enough to meet your daily protein goals.
5 Mean Green (Delicious) High Protein Vegetables
What Are Lectins? Brushing Up on These Plant Proteins