Protein bars are one of a huge array of "healthy" food items, snacks, and meal replacements that have hit the market over the last few decades. They exist to give people something to eat that they don't have to feel bad about when they're trying to lose weight.
Are they worthwhile, though? After all, with the flavors and ingredients in some of these protein bars, it sure seems like they aren't all that much different from candy bars, and candy bars certainly aren't going to help you lose weight.
Let's get to the real skinny on protein bars, and find out.
How to Lose Weight, Mechanically
Sometimes it seems like we harp on this every post we write, and we kind of do, but that's because it's important. Nothing at all will cause you to lose weight loss except maintaining a caloric deficit. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you burn more calories than you eat, you will lose weight.
There are other factors at play, of course. Nothing in life is ever quite that simple. Losing weight initially can be quite easy as your body consumes water weight, but once you get down to burning more fat, it gets harder. At the same time, as you build muscle, you have the potential to gain weight, since muscle is denser than fat. You can lose size and build muscle while not losing weight, and unless you're paying attention, it can feel very disheartening that you're putting in all this work and not losing weight.
Every diet plan is focused on caloric deficits. These diets transition you from sugary and fatty foods to foods with fiber and protein, which have fewer calories and fill you up more, keep you sated longer, and provide your body with better nutrients. Almost every exercise plan is focused on caloric deficits, as they get you to work more and burn more calories, freeing up more room in your diet.
Where do protein bars fit into this equation?
What a Protein Bar Can Do
Protein bars are basically just an easy, portable, tasty snack that is meant to be a healthy replacement for less healthy snacks. Instead of reaching for a candy bar, you reach for a protein bar. It'd be better and healthier still if you reached for some fruit, but the fruit is less convenient and messier to eat.
Protein bars are meant to be energy-boosting snacks. They're loaded with protein and fiber, in place of the sugars and carbs present in most candy bars and granola snacks. Many of them also have a range of added vitamins and minerals, to help you reach your recommended daily intakes of each of them, without needing to take a multivitamin, a handful of supplements, or eat a more balanced diet (though you should be doing that last one as well).
Protein bars have one huge benefit, which is that they're portable. You can throw one in a purse or in a pocket, and other than maybe some melty chocolate later, it's still easy to open, consume, and discard a wrapper without getting fruit juice or honey or something else all over the place.
One of the primary use cases of a protein bar is to serve as a way to quell hunger before or after a workout. You're hungry, so you want a snack; there are a lot of different snacks you might go for, but a protein bar is meant to be among the healthiest option. It's low on sugar and high on protein, so it fills you up better than candy or another smaller snack, and it keeps you from snacking more in the following few hours between your workout and dinner, or the next day's breakfast, or whatever meal is coming up next.
Some protein bars are meant to be a minor meal substitute as well. Meal replacements typically require more calories and a more nutritionally complete formula, but a meal substitute can simply fill you up with generally healthy ingredients to hold you over for a real meal later.
All of these can be pretty good benefits for something that is generally compact, low calorie, and healthier for you than your usual candy bars and other treats. That said, there's a dark side to protein bars, so you need to be careful.
How a Bad Protein Bar Sabotages Your Efforts
The trouble with protein bars is that they generally don't taste all that good. Some people describe them as being almost gritty and dry or lacking in sweetness, and they end up being unsatisfying when you're craving a particular kind of flavor.
This alone wouldn't be a problem, except the pressures of capitalism have led to dozens of companies creating their own versions of protein bars. These protein bars may have protein in them, but they're also packed with sugar and carbs, to make them tastier, sweeter, and generally less healthy for you. They become more like snack bars or candy bars, rather than protein bars.
The trouble here is that these end up being much higher calorie, much less satisfying, and much worse for you. Some of them don't even have very much protein in them at all, making the "protein bar" label little more than a marketing message.
Bad protein bars have too many calories in them and are digested too quickly, so they don't satiate you very well and they don't keep you satisfied. You end up eating more than one, or eating one and then eating another snack 30-60 minutes later when the cravings come back. Plus, with their own higher calorie content, they end up taking up more of your caloric deficit leeway, meaning you need to eat correspondingly less elsewhere or make up for it by working out even more, which you might not be willing to do.
Often, these bad protein bars also have too many carbs and lead to a blood sugar spike. Not only does this mess with your insulin levels, but it also gives you a short-lived burst of energy that tapers off into a crash very quickly. You end up feeling worse than you would if you had eaten something with more protein and fiber.
This is not to say that all protein bars are bad! There are, as mentioned, dozens if not hundreds of different kinds of protein bars. Some of them are legitimately good choices. Some of them are okay choices but might have some drawbacks to them. Some of them are basically just candy bars with packaging that makes them look like they're healthy. So how do you pick a good protein bar?
How to Pick a Good Protein Bar
Luckily, we live in a world where it's mandatory to put nutritional information on product packaging, so you can look into the ingredients and composition of a protein bar to see if it's good or not. Here are some things you can check.
Calories: Check the caloric content of the protein bar. A good protein bar will range from around 150 calories to up to 300. Aim for the lower end if you want something as a simple pre- or post-workout snack, and aim for the higher end if you want something that will serve as a full meal replacement.
Fiber: Look into how much fiber is in the protein bar. In general, you want something with around 3-5 grams of fiber. Too much more and you might do strange things to your gut. Too much less and your bar won't keep you satisfied for very long, and you'll be craving another snack sooner than you would like.
Fat: Look into the amount of fat that's in the protein. Remember, fat isn't bad for you necessarily, but there are good and bad fats. Avoid anything with trans fats, of course, and try to avoid artificial sweeteners and other unhealthy fats. Somewhere around 10 to 15 grams of total fat is fine for a protein bar.
Sugar: Look at the amount of sugar in the protein bar. You'll see "total sugars" under the total carbohydrates section. The more sugar there is in the protein bar, the worse it probably is for you. You won't be able to avoid sugar entirely since there are naturally sweet ingredients in every protein bar, but you want to keep the amount of sugar you consume as low as possible. Ideally, you want to keep the number under about 5 grams in a bar, though that can be pretty difficult. The lower the better.
Artificial sweeteners: Remember that artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, xylitol, and stevia all have their pros and cons. Many of them have a distinct taste that isn't quite like sugar, and some people are very sensitive to it. Some of them also have the potential to have long-term health issues that haven't quite been fully studied yet. Be careful with any added sweeteners, and try to find a protein bar that doesn't have any of them at all.
Protein: Obviously, you want to check to make sure your protein bar has protein in it. Ideally, you want something that has around 20 grams of protein to be a really good protein bar. You want more protein than carbs as well (if you can). Remember to look at the grams in volume, not the percentages, which are made to stand out more but can make a label look misleading.
Ingredients: Look into the ingredients in the protein bar. Some of them will be more or less healthy for you. You want something with whole ingredients as much as possible, but you also want to check into the type of protein it uses. For example, if you're vegan, you want to avoid one with dairy-based proteins or egg proteins, which are commonly used in protein bars.
Making Your Own Protein Bars
It's entirely possible that you won't find any good protein bars that are easy to get locally. We've seen it time and again; no local stores carry the good brands, so you have to order them online or take a drive way out of your way to get them, and then it's easy to fall back on easier, more convenient habits, which end up being less healthy for you.
This is why many people consider making their own protein bars. Protein bars aren't actually difficult to make, but there are a couple of drawbacks to doing so.
For one thing, you have to calculate all of the nutrients yourself. If you just add ingredients for flavor, you can disrupt the overall nutritional profile of the protein bars, and that makes them less healthy. If you want to know the total calories, total protein, total fat, and so on, you need to add up the nutrients from each ingredient. It's a lot of busywork.
Another potential issue is that, well, they don't have a wrapper. You need to store and carry a homemade protein bar with you for the full level of convenience that led you to protein bars in the first place, which means figuring out how to wrap it yourself. Simple waxed or parchment paper can be fine, but if you're not careful with your composition, consistency, and wrapping, it can still be pretty messy.
Then, of course, you have the inconvenience of time. If you're making your own protein bars, you need to have the time to make them, the equipment to make them, and the ingredients to make them. Not everyone has that luxury.
That said, if you do want to make your own protein bars, you certainly can, and they can be much healthier than store-bought because they have a more robust array of ingredients, are more tailored to your tastes, and have no preservatives.
Here are 11 recipes from Daily Burn, and 16 recipes from Eat This Not That, and another 25 recipes from Fit Mitten Kitchen to explore.