The creation of the protein bar began with fitness enthusiasts trying to squeeze out every last bit of muscle mass they can make. Today, protein bars are used by fitness enthusiasts, amateurs, those trying to lose weight, and even the elderly trying to maintain muscle mass as they age.
Protein bars have evolved over the years. Flavors are getting more creative and better tasting. Ingredients are getting more sophisticated and even the protein has been upgraded.
When you shop for protein bars, it can be very intimidating. There are so many different brands boasting that they are the best of the best. Some have muscle clad men on the box pumping iron, others have slim swimsuit models, and some are tailored to interest those looking for vegan, organic, and otherwise health-conscious shoppers.
How do you sift through the plethora of bars to find the right protein bar for you? Well, that’s the purpose of this article. Hopefully, when you are finished reading, you’ll be able to distinguish which bars aren’t worth your money and which should be in your shopping basket. We will go over what to look for depending on your desired end result and what to avoid.
Real Food vs. Protein Bars
Natural foods are always the best source of nutrition for our bodies. They are more easily absorbed and digested to be used fully by our bodies for its intended purpose. Supplements, on the other hand, aren’t as easily absorbed by our bodies but can help to fill any nutritional gaps we might be facing from our real food diet.
Vitamins are an example of this. Many people take a daily vitamin to help supplement what they don’t get in their regular diet. It can be hard to get all of the recommended vitamins and minerals by just eating. The vitamin supplement can help but won’t replace the nutrition you get from real foods.
Since most vitamins are made with synthetic substances, it can be difficult for the body to absorb them properly and they have also been known to create some negative side effects. There is a study to prove this fact and how Americans can fall prey to advertisements and the placebo effect. It is important to choose your vitamins wisely. Read the label and pick one that is made from natural sources.
The same is true of protein supplementation. It is always best to get the bulk of your protein from whole foods like lean meats, legumes, and vegetables but sometimes it can be hard to get enough protein from your diet, especially if you are stressing your muscles with exercise.
Our busy lives can get in the way of our nutrition. If you suffer from this, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one. Sure, it would be better to eat a plate of delicious vegetables or a nice thick steak but it isn’t always easy to get these.
Cooking is time consuming and when you’ve had a long day at work, you really don’t want to spend an hour in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. Picking up an unhealthy meal or snack on the way home is too tempting. No cooking and easy cleanup. Convenience is the American way.
Sometimes you don’t even have that option if you are on the road away from a useable kitchen. Also, even if you can cook, real foods are perishable and you have to pack them in containers that keep them at a safe temperature. Otherwise, you risk getting food poisoning. Then you need to find a place to warm them. This is not convenient, to say the least. Who has an oven or microwave available 24/7?
Protein bars can help to fill this gap. When used properly, protein bars deliver protein to your muscles at the perfect time for optimal muscle. They are very useful for busy people and those looking to sculpt lean muscle mass.
What are the benefits of protein bars?
A high amount of complete protein
A reputable protein bar company will focus on delivering high quality and absorbable protein. Many companies pack a wallop with their protein content. You can find some with vegan protein such as soy or pea protein if this is your diet of choice. Most on the market contain whey protein concentrate because it is cheap and abundant but some contain whey protein isolate which is one of the quickest to absorb. There is also casein protein and milk protein which is a mixture of casein and whey. Whatever the protein source, these bars often contain more than 15 grams of protein that your body can use. That is like eating half a steak. Who can do that at the gym?
Protein is a very hunger-fighting nutrient. How does it work? When your body breaks down protein, it creates a chemical called phenylalanine. This chemical triggers hormones that kill hunger. This can come in very handy when you are trying to lose weight but keep your muscles. Many times a low-calorie diet without enough protein will, in fact, help you lose weight but also breaks down your muscles. This makes it easier to regain your weight later because it slows down your metabolism. Protein can also help to reduce those crazy cravings you have at night and keep you on track nutritionally. Check out the amazing results of this study.
There is nothing more convenient than grabbing a snack out of your pocket and filling half your daily protein needs. Some protein bars are covered in chocolate so you might want to find a different location to store them but they are still very convenient. They are easy to eat, small enough to stick anywhere, individually wrapped and don’t need refrigeration.
We already discussed how you can keep these bars in your pocket. Of course, not everyone wants to have bulky pockets. (Is that a bar in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?) But you can keep these bars anywhere; in your gym bag, in your car, in your desk drawer, or in a backpack while you are hiking. Until you are ready to put these in your mouth, you can literally put them anywhere.
Sometimes the hours between meals can seem like an eternity. Snacking can be dangerous when you are trying to watch your calorie intake. Many snacks are full of fat and high in calories and if they aren’t they can leave you feeling less than satisfied. Protein bars are usually under 300 calories. Some have more calories but they are used as a meal replacement bar. (See next point.) If they aren’t you might want to check the ingredients list for fat and/or choose another bar. Also, remember point #2? These bars will not leave you feeling unsatisfied. They are guaranteed to stick with you until your next meal.
Protein bars that have more than 300 calories are often used to replace a meal. This helps to keep calorie consumption down and since they are so convenient, they help to save time. I wouldn’t recommend doing this often because most protein bars don’t contain much more nutrition than protein. Even if you can find a protein bar with a good list of included vitamins and minerals, chances are they aren’t from a natural source. Again, there are exceptional bars you can find that will be all natural but be ready to fork out a little extra cash.
Protein provides a great source of energy to both your body and your brain. It increases glycogen levels in the body which is a great source of energy for performing high-intensity exercise.
Help build lean muscle mass and strong bones
Protein bars can be eaten at the right time, either before, during, or after a workout depending on your needs. Before you workout, it provides energy to your muscles to help them get through the workout and even work harder during. If you are doing a longer than a normal workout you may need to provide your body with protein to keep this effect going. After a workout, eating a protein bar will help your muscles repair themselves from all the stress you just put on them. Protein is the building block nutrient. It helps to repair and strengthen muscle and bone mass. This helps to make your body a strong fortress, healthy against muscle atrophy, bone frailty, and an unattractive body frame.
Can help lower blood pressure
Since protein bars are such a convenient way to increase your protein intake, they can help you to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Protein is proven to help keep these two areas in check.
Things to avoid in protein bars
- Beware of bars that say they are sugar-free but are loaded with sugar alcohols. These can cause bloating and gastrointestinal issues that you just don’t want to deal with.
- Don’t buy bars that are basically a candy bar with protein added to it. Check the sugar content and the fat content.
- Make sure that there are no trans fats in your protein bar as these have no benefits from eating and are harmful to your health.
- Stay away from any ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, fructose, maltose, dextrose, maltodextrin, saccharose, sorghum, brown rice syrup, sucrose, carob syrup, or fruit juice concentrate and any flours besides wholemeal flours.
- Don’t buy bars that have a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. This means they are full of synthetic preservatives and additives that you don’t want to put into your body.
What to look for when buying protein bars?
When you find yourself staring blankly at the aisle of protein bars, it’s important to know what you want to get out of your protein bar. Then you can start to do your research and make a wise decision. The following aspects of a protein bar are points to consider when doing your shopping.
Total calorie count
This number is important because calories have an impact on our body. If your calorie intake is too low you won’t build enough muscle mass but if your calorie intake is too high, the excess calories will be stored as fat.
Even if you don’t want to gain fat, having enough calories in a snack to make it satisfying is important. The optimal calorie count for a protein bar that will be eaten as a snack is around 200 calories if your goal is to lose weight. Finding a protein bar with plenty of protein and fewer than 200 calories is hard so if you find one, grab it.
If you are looking to build muscle, higher calories in a post workout bar will help you gain muscle mass quicker. Studies have proven that fact. The extra protein will definitely help. Studies have also proved this. Of course, you still don’t want to go overboard but as far as I know, there aren’t any protein bars on the market that are over 500 calories, so you should be safe.
Depending on the kind of carbs you are eating, carbs can be a good source of energy or very, very bad. Healthy carbs like quinoa, legumes, and whole grains will give your body a boost with the protein to make for a perfect afternoon pick me up. Bars with higher amounts of carbohydrates are great to eat after a really draining workout to help your body get through the rest of the day.
These complex carbs are digested much slower than the unhealthy simple carbohydrates and give a slow release of energy that the body can use as its being released leaving no unused energy to store as fat. If you are looking to lose weight, you would want to limit even the healthy carbs to anything under 25 grams.
If you are looking to gain muscle mass you need those extra carbs. Try to get about twice as much carbs as protein in your bar for optimal gain.
On the other hand, there are carbs that will sabotage your energy levels. These carbs will spike your blood sugar levels and will be quickly followed by a crash. This crash in energy will cause your body to crave high-calorie foods and you will find yourself overeating. This study shows you why. These types of carbs are either added sugars or refined grains, meaning that they have almost all the fiber and nutrients taken out of them.
Most people hear the word fat and scream running for the hills but there is actually a real reason to eat fat as long as they are the healthy fats that your body will use instead of pack onto the side of your legs or add it to the belly pooch.
Healthy fats in protein bars usually come from nuts and seeds. These have omega 3 fatty acids that have many health benefits and help you feel full and satiated for longer so having them in your protein bar will help you stick to your diet and be productive the rest of your day.
If your main purpose for eating a protein bar is for post-workout fuel, you shouldn’t have much fat in them at all as this will slow your carbohydrate absorption by a few hours.
Obviously, we want high doses of high-quality protein in our protein bars. It can be hard to decide how much protein we really need because of so many varying factors such as age, gender, activity, and diet but as a rule of thumb, your protein bar should contain at least 12 grams of protein.
This protein should be from a good source, preferably as unprocessed as possible. There are many different types of protein like whey protein and casein protein which are both milk based. Whey protein is very quickly digested while casein protein is slowly digested. Whey is good for pre or post workout and casein is great for breakfast or snack bars.
Soy protein and pea protein are both vegan and vegetarian. There is also egg protein which is almost fat-free but still a good source of protein.
Because sugars make protein bars taste good, it will be very hard to find one without any sugars whatsoever but the type of sugar it contains is important as well as how much of it is in there. Honey, maple syrup, agave nectar or other natural sugar are the best source of sugar but sugars can come in many different disguises so read the ingredients well. As little sugar as you can find in a bar, the better but the best bars would have 10 grams or less.
Taste is always important. There is no point in buying a protein bar that you can’t bear to get down your gullet. If you are dreading the pain of swallowing the chalky protein bar, it isn’t worth it. Save yourself the punishment and find a bar that tastes at least ok. There are many bars that are delicious and nutritious. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find one.
In an effort to make protein bars more palatable, some companies use less than healthy ingredients. They can load up on artificial sugars and processed flavorings. To keep the bars from getting stale over time they will use more processed ingredients. In order to keep cost down, companies will opt for GMO products and non-organic protein. It can be difficult to find a perfect bar but you have to weigh the consequences. Protein is important but not to the detriment of your healthy nutrition so be sure to take a close look at the nutrition label to avoid any potential side effects.
The ingredients in your protein bar should be simple and easy to understand. If you can read the label quickly and don’t find ingredients that are long and sounds more like the name of a disease rather than something that should be eaten, you’ve found yourself a good wholesome bar. Now all you have to do is make sure the nutrients match your goals and you are all set!