Could Your Favorite Protein Bar Be Making You Fat?

Protein and energy bars aren't one-size-fits-all. Make sure you're getting everything you need (and nothing you don't).

Young woman eating Cereal candy barPhoto: Shutterstock / PhotoMediaGroup

Walk into any grocery store with your strategic, healthy grocery list and you will find a variety of energy and protein bars to choose from. How do you know which is best for you? Let’s break down the basics, so the next time you shop for this convenient food you’ll be armed with the right knowledge.

Pick the Right Kind

Before choosing a protein or energy bar, it’s important to understand why you want the bar in the first place. Here are some simple questions to consider, along with tips to point you toward the right bar.

Need a quick fix while out running errands? Consider a bar that is fruit- and nut-based, like Kind Bars or Lära Bars, to curb your appetite until you can sit down for a healthy meal.

Looking to recover after a tough workout? A moderate amount of protein and carbohydrates are necessary for muscle recovery, so consider Oatmega, RXBar, or Simply Fuel Protein Balls. Many natural-foods stores and co-ops also carry protein balls or cubes in their bulk aisles.

Craving something sweet to curb an afternoon snack attack? Look for a bar drizzled with dark chocolate versus a candy-coated version. Kind Bar or MacroBar Mini should do the trick. But consider this: Protein and energy bars are often equal in calories to a candy bar, and might be less satisfying. If a bar satisfies the sweet tooth, great! If not, don’t go there. Instead, grab a really good piece of dark chocolate, dip it in the best peanut butter and savor every bite.

Are allergies a concern in your household? Consider a bar like 88 Acres or Go Raw, which are packed with nutrient-dense seeds instead of nuts.

Want a quick meal replacement? These bars are higher in calories (in the 250-350 range) and may have longer ingredient lists, but they should last you until your next meal. Consider ProBar, Perfect Bar or Rise Bar, which are nutrient-dense and packed with wholesome ingredients.

Evaluate the Ingredients

Now that you know which type of bar best suits your needs, let’s chat about ingredients.

  • Whole foods: What does that even mean? Protein and energy bar makers are cleaning up their ingredient lists for the better. Opt for a bar with ingredients like nuts, dried fruits, and seeds. If you struggle pronouncing an ingredient or it reminds you of a chemistry experiment, consider skipping the bar all together.
  • Sweeteners: Added sugars have little room in protein bars. Look for brands with natural sweeteners like dates, raisins, bananas, apples, pears or monk fruit. Skip the ones that serve up these refined sugars: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sucrose, sugar, caramel, cane juice…and the list goes on.
  • Healthy fats: Fat is indeed essential. Find protein bars that have satiating fats from nuts, seeds or coconut. Skip over brands with palm oil or partially hydrogenated fats.
  • Protein: Most bars get their protein from nuts, seeds, whey protein (a milk protein), eggs, or beans. Also available are meat-based bars like the EPIC Bar, which comes in a variety of meaty flavors, from buffalo to salmon. But unless you’re lifting weights or working out strenuously on a daily basis, you don’t need more protein than what a tuna wrap or egg salad sandwich can provide. Look for bars that have 10-15 grams of protein per bar (that’s like eating 2 eggs or drinking a glass of milk).

Consider This Expert Advice

There’s a certain health “halo” that surrounds protein bars. Yes, if you choose the right bar, they can be part of a healthy diet—but they aren’t magical. Don’t eat them just because you’ve convinced yourself they’re good for you. Even the experts agree that what we eat should be satisfying and our expectations realistic.

Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of Body Kindness and founder of the Spiral Up club had this to say: “I love it when I can find a winning combination of taste, pleasure and convenience. As a busy mom, I can’t cook and eat the way most health gurus would want me to, and I’m a nutritionist! I tell clients to eat the bar that brings you the most overall satisfaction without the guilt. You’ve got more important things to do than worry about every little calorie or ingredient 100 percent of the time.”

Sports dietitian and owner of Your Supper Solution Leslie Schilling shared this: “Sometimes clients will grab a bar as a makeshift lunch and complain about being too hungry in the afternoon and evening. My advice is to always treat a bar as a snack—because that’s what it is. I know that if I were to try and replace a meal with a bar, I’d devour an entire pizza for dinner.”

Personally, as a dietitian and a person who loves to cook, I tend to skip over most bars, buying them for pure convenience when I’m on the road, out hiking or catching a flight. Most times I’m happy with homemade granola bars when I’m on the go or looking for a quick snack at home.

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Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN is the co-author of Born to Eat and the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook For Dummies. Catch her dishing out tasty bites of nutrition at justwendyjo.com or on Instagram.

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Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN
As a registered dietitian Wendy Jo touches on the science and facts behind food, but as a gardener and world traveler she savors the classical dishes our great-grandmothers once made. When she’s not in her kitchen, you can find her and her family exploring the US in their campervan, Olaf!