Healthy Living

Protein Bars 101: How To Choose What's Right For You

Protein bars
Here are 7 of the Best Whole30-Compliant Protein Bars. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Have you been into a GNC lately? Or the aisles of any store that shelves vitamins and dietary supplements? If you haven’t, here’s what you’re missing: a hundred different kinds of protein bars with a hundred different kinds of ingredients not necessarily befit of an intense workout or afternoon slump.

The truth is, despite the label claims, protein bars are not created equal. But with our general guide, and a little bit of homework, it is possible to find the best (healthy!) bar for you.

What’s The Purpose Of Protein, Anyway?

Protein, as reported by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “plays an important role in an athlete’s diet as the nutrient helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue.” Though generally speaking, protein plays a critical role in building muscle mass and maintaining proper function of our body’s cells, tissues, and organs.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Athletes and non-athletes typically get enough protein through their diet. Lean cuts of meat, like beef and pork, chicken, certain nuts, seeds, eggs, beans, tofu, and tempeh are but a few common examples of protein-rich foods. So why are there so many protein bars and supplements to begin with? In a word: convenience.

“We all have no time and eat like crap,” Dr. Daniel Fabricant, CEO of the Natural Foods Association, told Medical Daily. “[Therefore], what should drive everyone’s purchase is the reason why they are looking for a particular supplement. Are you really working out that intensely, or do you just not have time to eat?”

Asking yourself why you’re in an aisle with all those bars is the first step in choosing a brand that’s best for you. Some of what’s out there packs more carbohydrates than protein, making them better for energy bursts rather than post-workout recovery. The bars that do have a monster amount of protein — think 20 grams versus, say, 7 grams — is a great option for strenuous, intense activity, less so for someone whose workout is more cardio-based. That’s not to say one form of exercise is better than another, but the amount of protein will render different results.

As if that didn’t prove complicated enough, the type of protein used in a bar makes a difference, too. Whey, casein, and soy protein are the most common forms, with rising vegetarian-friendly options including rice, pea, and hemp protein. Whey protein comes from the liquid part of milk, and it’s broken down and absorbed so easily that others refer to it as “fast-acting protein.” On the other hand, casein is considered slow-acting protein, and the slower protein takes to digest, the more it tops off those energy levels.

But, don’t worry, there’s technically no wrong form of protein, said Fabricant. There’s just that one protein bar that may be better tailored for your overall health and exercise goals.

How Many Grams Makes A Protein Bar

Twenty grams of protein is a common number included in the protein bar conversation. In reality, the amount of grams a person should go for is dependent on a few things. Fabricant said the actual activity, plus a person’s body weight, will either increase or decrease that amount. To make it easy, GNC has an online calculator that determines your protein number based on your age, weight, activity level, and general goals. Once you have your number, GNC will propose suggested meals — breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner — that help you reach their suggested intake.

A quality protein bar isn’t determined by just protein, however. There are also calories, carbs, fat, fiber, and sugar. “I recommend that clients look for a bar with a similar protein-to-sugar ratio,” nutritionist Rania Batayneh, author of The One One One Diet, told Medical Daily in an email. “This will help them keep their blood sugar balanced. Too much sugar is going to wreak havoc on your blood sugar. It is not always about the amount of protein, it is about the balance [of each ingredient].” And of course, the fewer ingredients listed on the label, the better to ensure it is, in fact, healthy for you.

It seems like a cop out, but taking the time to identify your need for a protein bar, whether it’s to build strength, boost endurance, or lose some weight, as well as what the right ratio is of clean ingredients for your own body and activity level, is the way to determine the best protein bars. “As the case with any supplement, don’t just go off of taste or a company you think you like — talk to your physician and identify that ‘why,’” Fabricant said.

That said, we polled the Medical Daily team for their favorite protein bars and below are their answers, and perhaps a starting point for anyone looking to raise the, ahem, bar.

Quest Bars

“QUEST BARS!!!!!!!!!!” is an actual response received from inquiring about the team's favorite protein bars. They boast 20 grams of protein, little to no sugar (sourced from nuts and freeze-dried fruit), and a whole lot of fiber. It also skips gluten and is low in carbs.

Recommended flavors: Cinnamon Roll, Coconut Cashew, and Cookies N’ Cream

Think Thin Bars

Another high-protein, gluten-free option, Think Thin aims to provide each person “nutritious, protein-rich ingredients” in order to lead, and nourish, an active life.

Recommended flavor: Chunky Peanut Butter

Clif Bars

Clif Bars are an example of the kinds of bars that may be better for energy rather than protein as they’re higher in carbs. Some are high in sugar, too, which may be another reason to reserve them for an occasional pick-me-up.

Recommended flavor: Blueberry Crisp

KIND Bars

The bars from KIND Snacks almost gave Quest Bars a run for their money. These products are made from clean ingredients you can pronounce, and they work well to hold a person over in between meals.

Recommended flavors: Vanilla Blueberry and Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt

Power Crunch

The consistency of a Power Crunch bar is not unlike a Kit-Kat bar, if a Kit-Kat was fast-acting whey protein sandwiched between a wafer bar. An average bar has 13 grams of protein, and they'll make you feel better than an actual candy bar.

Recommended flavors: French Vanilla Creme and Peanut Butter Creme

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