Protein bars are a convenient and healthy snack that have many benefits including curbing your appetite between meals, providing workout support, both before and after exercise, and promoting muscle growth.
But most importantly, protein bars offer a way to get the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) you need each day for your body to function properly.
What are macronutrients and why are they important for health?
Macronutrients are large nutrients that provide your body with calories (energy) and are the building blocks of cellular growth, immune function, and overall repair. They include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. To ensure your optimum health and wellness, you need a balance of all macronutrients within your diet.
Carbohydrates provide fuel and energy to your body. Your brain muscles and cells need them to function properly. When you consume carbohydrates, the food is converted into sugars that enter the bloodstream. Those sugars (glucose) are either used immediately for energy or stored in the body’s cells for use at another time. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45 – 65% of your total caloric intake. 1 Carbohydrates include starches, fiber, and sugars. Starches and fiber are known as complex carbohydrates which take more time for your body to process, releasing a slower-burning, and longer-lasting energy. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate, which gives a quick burst of energy to your body.
Fats provide an important source of energy in times of starvation or caloric deprivation. They are also necessary for insulation, proper cell function, and protection of our vital organs. Fats that come from meat, eggs, and dairy are what’s known as saturated fats. Fats that come from plants-based sources such as nuts and seeds are unsaturated fats. Consistently consuming too many saturated fats can lead to heart problems, whereas unsaturated fats promote a healthy heart. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from fats. 2
Proteins provide the body with building blocks for muscle and other important structures such as the brain, nervous system, blood, skin, and hair. They also serve as transport for oxygen and other important nutrients. They are made up of long strands of amino acids which break down to provide the body with energy. Your body does not store proteins in the same way as fat and carbohydrates so they to be eaten every day. It is recommended that approximately 10 – 35% of your daily calories comes from protein. 3
To ensure you’re balancing your macronutrients, check the nutrient label on your protein bar.
- Protein source: Common protein sources include Whey, Casein, Egg, Soy, Rice, Hemp, and Pea. Whey is the most dense source of protein, and often heralded as the best protein source for weight loss. Whey isolate is the most easily digested of the protein sources. However, if you are a vegetarian/ vegan or have dairy intolerances, you will want to substitute whey protein for soy, rice, pea or hemp protein sources.
- Recommended levels of protein: To make the most of the calories from a protein bar, try to choose one that has over 10g of protein, which will help you reach your daily allowance. 4
- Carbohydrates: Look for bars with complex carbohydrates such as starches and fiber. 5 Simple carbohydrates such as sugar should be eaten in moderation as they can cause your blood sugars to spike quickly. Complex carbohydrates provide a slow release of energy, perfect to get you through a gruelling workout. Aim for 1:1 to 2:1 carb to protein ratio. Athletes can eat up to 4:1 carbs to protein.
- Whole food ingredients: Look for straightforward, whole ingredients such as fruit, eggs, nuts, oats, seeds and coconut.
- Healthy fats: Try to choose a bar healthy, unsaturated fats from nuts, nut butters, and seeds which studies have shown to promote heart health. 6
Quick tips to help you choose a healthy protein bar
Look for a balance of proteins, healthy fats, and fiber 7. This will ensure you are satisfied after eating, and unlikely to keep snacking between meals. Try to keep your calorie intake between 200 calories for a snack and 400 calories for a meal replacement bar.
High-sugar bars taste great, and can give an added energy boost on days when you feel sluggish, but to get the best form of energy from your bars try to look for one that gets most of its carbohydrates from starches and fiber. 8
Check the ingredients list. Look for simple ingredients you can understand. With protein as one of the first items listed.
And finally, know your own goals. The best bar for you to choose will depend on your own health goals. If you frequently train with weights or run long distances, you will want a protein bar with a higher carb to protein ratio. If you are looking to lose weight, you will probably be more interested in a high protein and high fiber bar to help keep you full. If you are choosing to replace meals with a protein bar you will need a higher calorie bar with added vitamins and minerals.
1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
4 Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
5 Parikh S, Pollock NK, Bhagatwala J, et al. Adolescent fiber consumption is associated with visceral fat and inflammatory markers. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012;97(8):E1451-E1457. doi:10.1210/jc.2012-1784
6 Hairston KG, Vitolins MZ, Norris JM, Anderson AM, Hanley AJ, Wagenknecht LE. Lifestyle factors and 5-year abdominal fat accumulation in a minority cohort: the IRAS Family Study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012;20(2):421-427. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.171
7 Boirie Y, Dangin M, Gachon P, Vasson MP, Maubois JL, Beaufrère B. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997;94(26):14930‐14935. doi:10.1073/pnas.94.26.14930
8 McGill AT. The sugar debate and nutrition: obesity and ’empty calories’. N Z Med J. 2014;127(1392):6‐11. Published 2014 Apr 11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24806242/